Boosting Intel Capabilities Key to Protecting America

February 25, 2008

In a bipartisan vote of 68-29, the U. S. Senate recently approved revisions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  The legislation would strengthen the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to protect our country from terrorist attack.   But the House of Representatives left for the President’s Day recess without acting on this critical reauthorization, and it expired on February 15.

Admiral Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, says without this key legislation in place, key programs “would be plunged into uncertainty and delay and capabilities would continue to decline.”   I share the director’s concerns and hope House leaders will move swiftly when they reconvene this week to address this issue and restore these vital tools to fight the global war on terror.

                               PRIVACY PROTECTIONS INCLUDED
The Senate bill provides strong privacy protections for American citizens while giving our intelligence community the ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists in foreign countries who may be plotting to attack the U.S. or its allies.   It also includes liability protections for private sector companies who have acted in good faith to assist intelligence agencies in monitoring terrorist communications.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted that without this immunity protection, the private sector might be unwilling to meet lawful government requests without unnecessary court involvement and protracted litigation.  The committee’s report said: “The possible reduction in intelligence that might result from this delay is simply unacceptable for the safety of our nation.”

                             REVISING OUTDATED LAW ESSENTIAL
Congress and the Bush Administration have been working on reauthorizing FISA for nearly two years.   Revising the 1978 law is essential to keep up with rapidly changing communications technology.  The terrorist networks aligned against the U.S. and its allies are using these new and advanced methods of communication.   It is imperative that our intelligence community have the ability to respond to this evolving threat.

We were successful in passing legislation last August to strengthen the law, but that measure was extended only until February 1 and did not include the private sector immunity provisions.   The legislation was then extended until February 15 to provide more time to reach agreement, but that date has come and gone.   The Senate recognized the worth of these revisions and voted in a bipartisan manner to enact them.  It is up to the House of Representatives now to join us in that effort.

This bill does not expand domestic surveillance authority, and it most definitely does not authorize new powers to spy on Americans in the U.S.  The reauthorization actually goes further in protecting civil liberties than provisions in the old law.   The goal is not to spy on law-abiding Americans who might be communicating with family members or friends overseas.  The focus is on tracking terrorist activities by listening in when terrorists are plotting attacks on the U.S. or our allies abroad.

Admiral McConnell and FBI director Robert Mueller have pointed to disrupted terrorist plots against America and its allies here at home in New Jersey and Illinois and in Denmark, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom.  These activities underscore the continued threat we face and the need to give intelligence agencies and law enforcement the ability to meet these challenges.    Reauthorizing FISA is essential to that effort.