Six years after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, 15 years after the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, 25 years after the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, and nearly 30 years after the Iranian Revolution — “Death to America!” was its rallying cry — we still can’t agree on what to call those waging war against us. Are they militant Islamists, Islamic fascists, terrorists, extremists, or something else entirely?
Nor do we agree about how to defend ourselves. Most controversial right now: Deciding what tools our intelligence agencies should be permitted to have as they try to uncover terrorist conspiracies.
Prior to 9/11, America’s intelligence capabilities were insufficient — to put it gently. We knew relatively little about al-Qaeda, where its members were and what plots they were hatching.
FBI agents didn’t search the laptop of al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui because they did not believe they had the legal authority to do so. And had some smart agent become suspicious about Mohamed Atta — the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers — there is no way that on 8/11 he would have been able to convince a judge to let him bug Atta’s communications based on the criminal justice standard of “probable cause.”
The least we should expect is that our elected officials learn from these mistakes. The Patriot Act was passed to knock down the wall that had made it impossible for intelligence agents and law enforcement officials to work together – to share dots and to connect dots.
And the Protect America Act (PAA) was passed to give the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency the freedom they need — and had, until a ground-shifting yet secret court decision in 2007 — to spy on foreign terrorist suspects communicating with each other outside the United States.
But the PPA expired on February 16. A bill to re-authorize its key provisions was passed by more than two-thirds of the Senate — an overwhelming and bipartisan majority. In the House, too, it was likely that the bill would sail through with Republicans and many Democrats combining for a convincing bipartisan majority. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose to prevent that, sending the members home for recess instead.
Pelosi argues that those pushing for this legislation are “fear mongering.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters: “The expiration of this act does not in reality threaten the safety of Americans.”
Among those who disagree: Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, America’s top spy. Previously, he served as director of the NSA under President Clinton. Before that, he was a vice admiral in the Navy and, for a quarter-century, a U.S. intelligence officer. In other words, he is hardly some partisan hack.
McConnell wrote to the House Intelligence Committee: “We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress’ failure to act.” A requirement now in force — that the government show “probable cause” to a judge in Washington to bug non-Americans overseas — has “degraded” our intelligence-collection capacity, he added.
On February 14, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed that, saying: “What people have to understand around here, that the quality of the intelligence that we are going to be receiving is going to be degraded. . . . It’s already going to be degraded.”
This week, Rockefeller did a back-flip, co-signing an op-ed in the Washington Post along with three other Democratic members of Congress, asserting that Republicans who say what he said about the degradation of intelligence are “desperate to distract attention from the economy and other policy failures,” and “are trying to use this issue to scare the American people.”
It appears that left-wing groups such as MoveOn.org (which has run ads attacking General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us”) and the ACLU (which wants to extend American privacy protections to terrorists in Waziristan) are once again having their way with Democratic leaders.
There also is this: In the aftermath of 9/11, the government approached some private telecommunications companies and told them their help was needed to find out if more terrorist attacks were on the way. The companies said yes — and now trial lawyers — among the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party — are suing the companies for billions of dollars.
The Senate bill would provide protection from these lawsuits — and protect the rest us too: Because if there are trials, there is a substantial risk that classified information on intelligence methods would be released publicly, including to our enemies — whatever we decide to call them.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.