Bringing intelligence into the twenty-first century
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) should be modernized to take into account technological changes that have occurred during the past 29 years — especially given the fact that the failure to do so will increase the likelihood that terrorists will be able to strike the United States? The issue shouldn’t be a matter of partisan debate, but the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate appears determined to make it into one.
House and Senate Republicans have joined with President Bush and the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, to support amending FISA to make it possible to wiretap telephone conversations involv- ing suspected terrorists located outside the United States without obtaining judicial approval. Unfortunately, however, the Democratic leadership has been blocking such changes from coming to the floor for a vote, thereby jeopardizing the ability of intelligence agencies to prevent a terrorist attack.
FISA, which established the legislative framework for court approval to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance of persons inside the United States, was specifically designed to exclude the overwhelming majority of overseas surveillance activities. When the law was enacted in 1978, local telephone calls were made on a wire; calls made overseas were made using wireless networks. What the Bush administration and Republi- cans want to do (and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from the DailyKos and the rest of the left-wing blogosphere are opposing) is to reform the law to account for the fact that today, calls made overseas are made using a wire, and U.S. intelligence agencies lose valuable time when they have to get a warrant in order to intercept these calls. The requirement to obtain a warrant to monitor a telephone conversation involving suspected al Qaeda operatives in Islamabad and London is nonsensical. It does nothing to enhance the civil liberties of the American people, and in fact increases the likelihood of a terrorist attack that would constitute the ultimate violation of our liberties.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican leader John Boehner want Congress to remain in Washington to enact the relatively modest and sensible FISA reforms pushed by the Bush administration. Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi have made statements indicating a willingness to compromise, but they are being pounded from the left-wing bloggers who are instructing them not to yield an inch. The Democratic leadership faces a critical decision: Will it pander to the lunatic fringe or behave like responsible adults and work out a sensible FISA overhaul before Congress leaves town? This much is certain: Al Qaeda won’t be taking an August vacation.