With Republicans attempting to frame this year's mid-term election once again around security and terrorism, one question persists: has the government's response to terrorism made our country as secure as it can be?
We still must learn the whereabouts of Bin Laden and Zawahiri, so we can capture them; we must have intelligence dominance in Iraq so we can protect our forces; we must penetrate global terror cells to prevent them from attacking us; we must plug gaps in our homeland security; and prevent nuclear material from being acquired by hostile forces bent on using it against America and its allies.
It has become quite apparent that five years after 9/11, some of our nation's most pressing security problems remain unsolved.
Instead of working on these critical problems, yesterday the Intelligence Committee, where I am the Ranking Democrat, met to fix something that isn't broken - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
FISA is a modern, flexible statute that allows the government to conduct electronic surveillance on Americans suspected of taking part in terrorist activities with a foreign entity. FISA is a vital tool for the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA in their investigations of terrorism and espionage.
There is no evidence that FISA must be gutted to permit broad warrantless surveillance of Americans. Yet HR 5825, the White House/Heather Wilson bill that was reported out of committee yesterday, would do just that.
I take a backseat to nobody in supporting strong, modern tools for our intelligence professionals to track terrorists. But I also believe that the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment, and liberties guaranteed to the people of this nation are too precious to be compromised.
The White House arguments are dead wrong.
First, they claim that FISA is "outmoded." That might be true had FISA been unaltered over the past 28 years. But FISA has been amended and modernized numerous times, including most recently in the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act in March. The Congressional Research Service reported that 51 separate provisions in 12 different bills have amended FISA. The argument that FISA is "behind the times" should be news to those in this Administration who asked for, and received from Congress, 12 changes to FISA in the last 5 years.
Second, they argue that the process of getting warrants under FISA is too burdensome.
I have seen no evidence that the statute itself is the source of that problem. Rather, NSA officials have testified that the administrative process is slow. Most of the red tape has built up within the Executive Branch, and the Executive Branch could fix that through better management. The record proves that this process can and does move efficiently in true emergencies. If there is a backlog, the Executive Branch should fix the problem.
We should not lower the standard of the Fourth Amendment when a simple agency regulation can do.
There is a better way. The LISTEN ACT (HR 5371) is co-sponsored by 64 House Members, including all 9 Democratic Members of the Intelligence Committee. It was introduced two months before the HR 5825, and has much broader support.
All members of Congress want to protect America from terrorism. We all know that it's an election season, and that a debate on surveillance brings political benefits to some. But I, for one, do not want to suspend our 217-year-old Constitution for political reasons or for no reason at all.