The FISA Fight

If Usama bin Laden has a sense of humor – or maybe if his #2 guy, Ayman al-Zawahiri does — the two must be laughing as hard as you or I do when we see a rerun of “Blazing Saddles.”  The spectacle of the US Congress refusing to deal with the crisis in intelligence gathering necessitating amendment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must tickle their funny bones like their favorite hostage-beheading video.

Since April, the Democrats who control the US Senate have been sitting around like Mel Brooks’ oversexed and under-competent Governor LePetomaine, demanding harrumps from each other and worrying how they’re going to save their phoney baloney jobs next year. (Harry LePetomaine Reid was out yesterday blaming President Bush for the Minneapolis bridge collapse.)  Meanwhile, Bin Laden must be enjoying the spectacle of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body failing to fix the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was apparently broken by a secret court decision this spring.

We know now that since April, American intelligence gatherers have missed some or all of the e-mails and telephone calls going overseas to suspect terrorists or coming into the US from them because of a classified decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. 

Congress is scheduled to go out on its August recess tonight, and unless Democrats Russell Feingold (D-WI), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) suffer a moment of lucidity, the boys and girls will go off on their holiday without fixing FISA.

And our intelligence agencies, unwilling to break the law, will forfeit another month of partial or total deafness to the communications between terrorists here and their commanders overseas.  To understand just how insane this is, one of the Dems’ biggest hang-ups is the fact that Attorney General Gonzales is being given an oversight role.  To the Dems, it’s worth missing another months’ electronic intelligence if they can put a sharp stick in ol’ Alberto’s eye.

Note to Messrs. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, et al.:  How much attack planning and dissemination of funds and orders can you accomplish in another month? You may have known that things were messed up here before we did, but you have to know that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wi) is considering a filibuster against a FISA amendment he believes won’t provide your civil liberties sufficient protections.  (And don’t worry. Even if Congress manages to get something done this week, Feingold wants to “sunset” it in September, so our intel guys will be blind again from Labor Day ‘til Christmas.  I don’t know what you call them in terrorist lingo, but we call these periods “windows of opportunity.”)

But not all is roses for bin Laden and his boys.  There is at least some danger that Congress will actually do its job, thanks to some few Republicans who actually want our intelligence agencies to be able to gather intelligence with which we might prevent the next 9-11.  Yesterday, Cong. Heather Wilson (R-NM) — ranking Republican on the House Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee — and 189 other House Repubs sent Nancy Pelosi a letter demanding passage of the FISA amendments before the August recess.  

The letter said, in part, “The Congressional Intelligence Committees and the House leadership have known about this problem since April of this year and yet, we are approaching the August recess and still no action has been taken to fix this problem.  Madam Speaker, our intelligence analysts are not able to connect the dots to keep us safe it they cannot collect the dots in the first place.  This situation is unacceptable and places the American people at risk.”  

That’s the whole point, folks.  You can’t connect the dots if they don’t let you gather them in the first place.  (We reached Cong. Duncan Hunter late yesterday. Hunter is pretty appalled at the failure of Congress to act.  “Failure to [fix FISA] will only put the American people at greater risk,” he told us.)

Yesterday, I was convinced that the Dems, even as insane and irresponsible group as these, wouldn’t go out on their August recess without at least a patchwork change to FISA to tide the intel guys over.  But that may not be true.  Though bargaining goes on, the last reliable report on the talks between Senate Dems and Republicans said that another new version of the legislation — this being the third or fourth of the week — was proposed this afternoon by Carl Levin and rejected out of hand by Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell.  

So it may be that the Dems will violate the Democrat Prime Directive:  if they take Congress off on their month’s vacation, and we miss intelligence that would have warned us of an attack that comes, the Dems will have done something that will fix responsibility right between their eyes.

Washington is melting down in the August heat.  It will be good for Congress, and the nation, for the recess to begin.  But not before they fix FISA.  We’ve been disgusted by the Iraqi parliament taking August off while time is running out on them and urgent business remains undone.  If our Congress goes off before fixing FISA, we should feel the same disgust toward them.