Give Our Intelligence Community the Tools it Needs to Protect America
Early on the morning of May 12, seven U.S. soldiers stood lookout near a patrol base in Iraq. Sometime before dawn, heavily armed al Qaeda gunmen made a coordinated surprise attack on the soldiers. Four of the soldiers were killed, and three others were taken hostage.
A search to rescue the men began immediately, but was brought to a halt as military lawyers jumped through legal hoops to get permission to conduct surveillance of the terrorists' communications.
Ten excruciating hours passed while military lawyers interpreted the statutes to decide if it was legal for them to wiretap phone calls between terrorists in Iraq. The search for a kidnapped U.S. soldier was impeded so that lawyers could find grounds to have the Attorney General grant special permission to listen in on the communications between individuals in Iraq.
There are important lessons to be learned from this story. The first lesson is that we are at war. This is an issue that cannot be taken lightly. Our troops are engaged with enemies daily in Iraq and Afghanistan who want to kill them.
However, as a nation, we are also at war with a radical ideology that hates America for what we stand for and wishes to bring harm to our citizens and our way of life. We witnessed the destructive potential of this ideology on September 11, 2001, and we have seen continued evidence of its existence in attacks on civilians in other western democracies since.
There is no doubt in my mind that elements of al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups wish to bring further destruction to the United States. We cannot afford to handcuff our intelligence communities from gathering the information they need to thwart such attempts on the lives of American citizens.
Congress is in the middle of debating legislation to provide our intelligence community with the tools it needs to carry out its duties. At the heart of the issue is the body of domestic law that was originally passed as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was first passed in 1978. With rapid advances in telecommunications technologies since 1978, our current laws are simply outdated. Part of the debate has hinged on the issue of civil liberties.
Ironically, the freedoms we enjoy are part of the reason we are hated by groups like al Qaeda. If we were to violate the civil liberties of American citizens in order to gather intelligence to execute the war on terror, then we have let the terrorists win already.
In April of this year, Congressional Intelligence committees warned of significant and unintended intelligence gaps caused by legal requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In August, Congress finally acted on an overwhelming bipartisan basis, after months of prodding from Republicans, to temporarily close these intelligence gaps against potential foreign terrorists in other countries who jeopardized America's ability to collect intelligence on foreign adversaries.
The current bill being offered by the Democrat majority does not provide our intelligence community with the tools they need to protect us. The bill would restore the requirement for an advance court order to conduct overseas surveillance, like the situation with the kidnapped soldier in Iraq. Advance court review of intelligence activities against foreign enemies does nothing to protect civil liberties of Americans.
The legislation would also subject an international call to the review of a FISA court, even if it is from an individual in a foreign country to another person abroad, if the signal is bounced through a U.S. relay. There is no issue of civil liberties for American citizens in this situation.
For the first time, the bill would stop intelligence professionals from conducting surveillance of foreign persons in foreign countries unless they can read the minds of their terrorist targets and guarantee that they would not call the United States or a person in the United States. This is more protection than Americans get under court-ordered warrants in mob and other criminal cases.
Surprisingly, in a bill touted for its protection of civil liberties, a requirement for a dangerous database exists that would violate the rights of U.S. citizens. The bill would require the intelligence community to compile a central database of all instances in which information about U.S. citizens is incidentally acquired while targeting foreigners, and to report information on the database to Congress. Normally this information would either be minimized, expunged or would expire - not made readily available in a database.
We need real FISA reform legislation that will respect the civil liberties of American citizens while providing our intelligence community the tools it needs to protect our citizens. The current legislation being offered by the Democrats does not fulfill this need.