Politics & Policy

Congressional Stuntmen (and Speaker)

Here’s the edict from House Democrats: Terrorists plotting to kill Americans get protection from surveillance, while businesses helping to protect Americans from terrorists get ruined by litigation.

For the second time in a month, House Democrats have closed up shop to go on vacation (this time for two weeks) without permitting a vote on a bill that would restore critical surveillance authority to U.S. intelligence agencies. Obviously embarrassed by the bad publicity they generated last time around, they’ve attempted to camouflage dereliction with chicanery, offering an alternative proposal Democrats know to be so deeply flawed that it would be dead on arrival in the Senate — let alone at the White House, where it would be vetoed instantly.

Here’s the bottom line: If an Egyptian terrorist in Iraq calls a Saudi terrorist in Iraq to coordinate an operation against U.S. troops, House Democrats believe the American intelligence community should not be permitted to monitor their conversation unless a judge in Washington is convinced the courtroom standard of “probable cause” has been met.

Mind you, aliens outside the United States have no Fourth Amendment rights, and our current surveillance law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, was specifically designed to permit the intelligence community to monitor non-Americans overseas without any restrictions or court interference — the point of FISA was to protect Americans inside the United States. No matter. Democrats have decided that a threat environment in which foreign terrorists are targeting the American people for mass-murder attacks is the perfect opportunity for giving foreign terrorists worldwide privacy protections against eavesdropping.

Beyond ignoring the chamber’s Republican members, the Democratic leadership evidently did not think it was important to consult with the intelligence community or the Justice Department about the nation’s surveillance needs. How reassuring to know, then, that the views of the trial lawyers, who so lavishly support Democrats, are so well represented.

The House Democrats’ alternative bill denies telecommunications companies the liability protection that would deflect the trial lawyers’ multibillion-dollar lawsuits against those that have stuck their necks out to help our intelligence agencies. In the emergency conditions that followed the 9/11 attacks, the companies complied in good faith (that is, based on an assurance of legality) with government requests that they assist the NSA’s surveillance program, an effort to thwart further attacks. Without a guarantee that they will not be sued for complying with ostensibly lawful government requests, the telecoms cannot be expected to cooperate expeditiously in the future (even during emergencies) or in the intelligence community’s continuing efforts to maintain a technological edge over those actively trying to kill Americans.

Nor is that the end of the House Democrats’ campaign against those trying to protect the country from attack. Democrats also want to create a congressional commission to probe an NSA program that already has been the subject of three years’ worth of extensive oversight investigation, requiring the Justice Department and Intelligence Community to divert thousands of hours from their counterterrorist mission to answer countless inquiries from politicians on the Hill. The message to our intelligence agents is the same one Democrats have for the telecoms: If you’re asked to take sensible steps to protect Americans, it’s better to answer “no” than to risk legal jeopardy and assaults on your reputation.

What is truly remarkable is that the House Democrats’ recklessness with our security studiously ignores a reform bill, supported not only by the administration, but also by Senate Democrats. The bill was approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence by a lopsided 13-2 margin before passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate in a two-to-one bipartisan landslide. The Senate bill would restore essential foreign intelligence-collection authority that has been lost since House Democrats allowed this summer’s temporary Protect America Act to lapse just before leaving on their last vacation in February.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charges may think this sleight-of-hand will work. It won’t. As they know, their maneuver was opposed by Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, respected non-partisan professionals, who’ve reported that we are already losing intelligence due to the House’s partisan intransigence. Pelosi’s stunt is opposed by the Senate, including by Intelligence Committee Democrats who studied the issues closely and concluded it was imperative that the telecoms be given a measure of protection and that the intelligence community be permitted — as it has traditionally been — to conduct surveillance overseas without restriction or court interference.

House Democrats have chosen to leave American intelligence operatives hobbled in the fight against terrorism. No amount of gamesmanship will conceal that.

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