It has been 66 days since House leaders refused to bring the bipartisan FISA bill to the floor for a vote — or more precisely, 66 days for jihadists to plot without much fear of having their conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials.
By failing to modernize the law that governs the surveillance of terrorists overseas, House Democratic leaders are playing Russian roulette with our security. The House’s inaction is all the more irresponsible because the leadership has reopened terrorist loopholes that are big enough to drive a truck with explosives through.
Over the past two months, we have urged House leaders to allow a vote on the Senate bill, which would restore a key tool in the War on Terrorism and also provide liability protections for the telecommunications companies that have played a key role in helping the government defend our nation since 9/11.
The House’s decision to strip intelligence officials of one of their key tools in the War on Terrorism has left us with no other option than to take the extraordinary step of organizing a discharge petition, which would require a vote on our bill once a majority of the House signs onto the effort. We began circulating the petition this morning — 30 legislative days after the bill was introduced, as per House rules.
We have no doubt that many Republicans will add their names to the discharge petition, but with Democrats in the majority, the math is simple — they will need to join us if we are going to be successful.
Consider what’s at stake: Half of all the information we obtain on future attacks against our nation comes from electronic surveillance, according to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who warned that failure to pass the Senate bill will degrade all intercepts by two-thirds. We can’t expect intelligence officials to connect the dots when they have one arm tied behind their back collecting them.
Or as Director McConnell said, “More than likely we would miss the very information we need to prevent some horrendous act from taking place in the United States.”
The Senate bill, which we also introduced in the House with Reps. Lamar Smith and Pete Hoekstra, gives intelligence officials the speed and agility they need (and have had since right after September 11) to quickly monitor foreign-to-foreign communications of terrorists without having to first obtain a court order. But it also protects civil liberties by empowering the FISA Court to review the procedures that are used to collect this information. And it still requires the government to get a warrant to wiretap any American.
Let us be clear: This surveillance involves only suspected terrorists living overseas whose phone calls are being routed through fiber optic cables in the United States. Some complain about infringing on civil liberties, but whose liberties are they really talking about if the targets are outside the United States and the individuals are under federal surveillance for terrorist activities?
We treasure our civil liberties, but we also value the lives of the American people — and we recognize that stopping new attacks sometimes requires gathering intelligence quickly.
Unfortunately, intelligence officials are now forced to operate under laws that were written more than three decades ago — in an era before cell phones and PDA’s. Instead of tracking new terrorist cases, they are now wasting critical hours fighting through red tape to file court papers trying to prove probable cause for a wiretap — a difficult task to do quickly when dealing with bits and pieces of information. And in an age of disposable cell phones and satellite communications, the terrorists will probably change their phone numbers several times before the court authorizes a wiretap.
It is possible that we could soon see a return to the massive backlog of requests for surveillance like last summer, when intelligence officials had to essentially wait on line to get approval to eavesdrop on terrorists in Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan that were plotting deadly new attacks against innocent Americans.
Make no mistake — America is more vulnerable to attack today than it was just two months ago. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans worked with the Administration to pass a bipartisan bill.
The question is, will the House stop playing politics and do the right thing for America?