Cliff May

Six years after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11/01, 15 years after the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, 25 years after the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, and nearly 30 years after Iran’s Revolution – “Death to America!” was its rallying cry -- we still can’t agree on what to call those waging war against us. Are they militant Islamists, Islamic fascists, terrorists, extremists or something else entirely?

Nor do we agree about how to defend ourselves. Most controversial right now: Deciding what tools our intelligence agencies should be permitted to have as they try to uncover terrorist conspiracies.

Prior to 9/11/01, America’s intelligence capabilities were insufficient – to put it gently. We knew relatively little about al-Qaeda, where its members were and what plots they were hatching.

FBI agents didn’t search the laptop of al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui because they did not believe they had the legal authority to do so. And had some smart agent become suspicious about Mohamed Atta -- the ringleader of the 9/11/01 hijackers – there is no way that on 8/11/01 he would have been able to convince a judge to let him bug Atta’s communications based on the criminal justice standard of “probable cause.”

The least we should expect is that our elected officials learn from these mistakes. The Patriot Act was passed to knock down the wall that had made it impossible for intelligence agents and law enforcement officials to work together – to share dots and to connect dots.

And the Protect America Act (PPA) was passed to give the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency the freedom they need — and had until a ground-shifting yet secret court decision in 2007 — to spy on foreign terrorist suspects communicating with each other outside the United States

But the PPA expired on Feb. 16th. A bill to re-authorize its key provisions was passed by more than two-thirds of the Senate – an overwhelming and bipartisan majority. In the House, too, it was likely that the bill would sail through with Republicans and many Democrats combining for a convincing bipartisan majority. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose to prevent that, sending the members home for recess instead.

Pelosi argues that those pushing for this legislation are “fear mongering.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters: “The expiration of this act does not in reality threaten the safety of Americans."

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.