At exactly 6:09 p.m. on Feb. 14, the Democratic leaders of the House
handed al Qaeda a Valentine's Day gift. Thanks to their decision to
recess for Presidents Week without passing legislation to update the
law that governs the surveillance of terrorists overseas, jihadists are
once again free to plot without much fear of having their conversations
intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials.
inaction is all the more irresponsible because the Senate
overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill recently that modernizes the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and closes terrorist
loopholes that are big enough to drive a truck with explosives through.
also provides liability protections for the telecommunications
companies that have played a key role in helping the government defend
our nation since September 11, 2001. There's no dispute that the
government and private sector must work together in rooting out
terrorist threats, but if we allow these companies to be exposed to
multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits, they'll have every reason to
stop cooperating with our intelligence initiatives.
Feb. 14 we had introduced the exact Senate legislation, but House
leaders refused to bring our bill to the floor because they knew it
would pass with bipartisan support. These political games have been
played in the House since last August, when the Democratic leadership
chose to wait for the last day before a monthlong recess to fix the law
— and then brought a bill to the floor that it opposed and told its
members to vote against. This month, with the clock again ticking,
Congress closed shop for another vacation, but this time the law
expired — an egregious act that threatens our safety and security.
decision to strip intelligence officials of one of their key tools in
the War on Terrorism has left us with no other option than to take the
extraordinary step of organizing a discharge petition, which would
require a vote on our bill once a majority of the House signs onto the
We have no doubt many Republicans will add their
names to the discharge petition, but with Democrats in the majority,
the math is simple — they will need to join us if we are to succeed.
what's at stake: Half of all the information we obtain on future
attacks against our nation comes from electronic surveillance,
according to National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who warned
that failure to pass the Senate bill will degrade all intercepts by
two-thirds. We can't expect intelligence officials to connect the dots
when they have one arm tied behind their back collecting them.
as Mr. McConnell said, "More than likely we would miss the very
information we need to prevent some horrendous act from taking place in
the United States."
Our legislation gives intelligence officials the speed and agility
they need (and have had since right after September 11) to quickly
monitor foreign-to-foreign communications of terrorists without having
to first obtain a court order. But it also protects civil liberties by
empowering the FISA Court to review the procedures used to collect this
information. And it still requires the government to get a warrant to
wiretap any American.
Let us be clear: This surveillance
involves only suspected terrorists living overseas whose phone calls
are routed through fiber-optic cables in the United States. Some
complain about infringing on civil liberties, but whose liberties are
they really talking about if the targets are outside the United States
and the individuals are under federal surveillance for terrorist
We treasure our civil liberties, but we also
value the lives of the American people — and we recognize that stopping
new attacks sometimes requires gathering intelligence quickly.
intelligence officials are now forced to operate under laws written
more than three decades ago — in an era before cell phones and PDAs.
Instead of tracking new terrorist cases, they now waste critical hours
fighting through red tape to file court papers trying to prove probable
cause for a wiretap — a difficult task to do quickly when dealing with
bits and pieces of information. And in an age of disposable cell phones
and satellite communications, the terrorists will probably change their
phone numbers several times before the court authorizes a wiretap.
is likely we will see a return to the massive backlog of requests for
surveillance like last summer, when intelligence officials had to
essentially wait on line to get approval to eavesdrop on terrorists in
Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan that were plotting deadly new attacks
against innocent Americans.
Make no mistake — American is
more vulnerable to attack today than it was just two weeks ago. In the
Senate, Democrats and Republicans worked with the administration to
pass a bipartisan bill. The question is, will the House stop playing
politics and do the right thing for America?