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Congress needs to pass 'Protect America Act'

Right Here, Right Now!

Posted: March 17, 2008 2:37 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Another week of governmental inactivity in Washington D.C. has passed. Granted, 2008 is a presidential election year, and substantive legislation traditionally takes a backseat to politics, but the United States House of Representatives has literally fallen asleep at the switch.

In fact, with the exception of the sideshow-like "Steroidgate" baseball hearings overseen by California Democrat Henry Waxman, not much took place in the House of Representatives in the entire month of February. The baseball blowout was obviously more important a priority to House Democrats than the preservation or our country's defense.

Yes, while members of Congress were busily meddling with Major League Baseball, they were also allowing the Protect America Act to expire on Feb. 16 by sitting on it. This short-lived, important bill essentially closed intelligence surveillance loopholes in the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Now the leaders in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives have refused to bring the Protect America Act extension bill back to the floor; thus our monitoring ability over foreign terrorists has been curtailed.

"We have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act," Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey wrote in a letter dated Feb. 22 to Chairman Reyes of the House Intelligence Committee. The United States will remain less safe until Congress removes the legal obstacles preventing companies that assist intelligence gathering agencies.

In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act largely because Americans needed protection from unwanted eavesdroppers. This was prior to the expansion of our electronic society and the vast use of cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Under the original FISA law, foreigners were given the same ensured rights as American citizens. If foreign nationals were connecting with one another on our soil through our domestic telecommunications networks, we could not freely intercept that potentially dangerous information. Our intelligence-gathering community had to secure a FISA court warrant prior to listening to conversations between terrorists.

Clearly, the civil liberties of American citizens must be protected.

At the same time, terrorists should not be provided the same protective eavesdropping rights as our own citizens; and therefore, FISA was updated in August 2007 with the Protect America Act.

Unfortunately, the Protect America Act was a temporary fix. It was limited for only a six-month period of time, which required Congress to take another look at it this year.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act needs a long-term fix, and the Senate tried to rectify that by passing a modernized FISA bill.

On Feb. 12, with only four days left on the Protect America Act bill, the U.S. Senate successfully passed what is called the FISA Amendments Act of 2007. The vote was 68-29.

House Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, let the bill lapse rather than try to comply by the Feb. 16 expiration date of the Protect America Act. In fact, she allowed a 12-day vacation for House members, saying more time was needed for debate. Even though it appears that a majority of the House of Representatives would pass the approved Senate bill, Mrs. Pelosi still has not brought it forth to the House membership for a vote. She is said to be seeking a compromise that would thwart the cooperation between the telecommunication companies and intelligence agencies.

After the terrorist attack of 9/11, the Justice Department actively sought help in gathering intelligence information. The telecommunication companies and the government cooperated in good faith to help protect our country from more acts of terrorism. It is because of these brave partnerships that our country has not been further assaulted. The chains we are placing on the intelligence community only exacerbate the threat of future attacks.

Now, however, various trial lawyers want to press class-action suits against the very companies who answered the call of the Justice Department. This amounts to stretching the boundaries of our laws to protect our enemies. What kind of newspeak is this, and whose civil liberties are really being protected?

Telecommunications companies must be allowed to freely cooperate with the agencies that are intercepting the terrorist communications. They need protection against future action and civil lawsuits; otherwise, the companies collecting critical information could be prevented from being effective. It is because of the ongoing persistent work of the U.S. intelligence community that a recurrence of 9/11 has been avoided.

The leaders of the House Democrats apparently prefer to act as obstructionists by preventing the passage of the amended Senate FISA bill. In Iraq and Afghanistan our troops freely gather useful intelligence data. They need to be allowed to act upon that information quickly, without waiting for the processing of court orders. This is a war unlike any other America has fought. This is an intelligence-driven war that is, in fact, a War on Terror.

The Democrats tend to be long on talk and short on action. Diverting the public focus with media-driven sensationalistic baseball melodrama does not supplant the need to pass legislation dealing with national security. The safety of our country is at stake, and this is no time to play political hardball. The House of Representatives in general, and specifically the leaders of the House Democrats, need to step up to the plate, and pass the amended FISA bill ... now.

Paul B. Strickland Sr. is a resident of Santa Clarita. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Right Here Right Now" rotates among local Republicans.


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