Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- One of the conclusions of the post-9/11 investigation into the terrorist attacks was that U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to connect the dots about the unfolding plot against us.

Nearly six years later, our lawmakers are still fighting over whether a key intelligence tool needed to connect those dots should be updated to track terrorist communications networking and help prevent the next attack against the United States.

It is a shameful story of partisan bickering, shortsighted antiwar ideologues and Democratic lawmakers who want to weaken the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 under the specious claim that it violates American civil liberties.

All of this infighting ignores one unarguable reality: We have been kept safe since that dreadful day on Sept. 11, 2001, because of the steps that were taken to uncover what the terrorists are planning before they can carry out their deadly deeds.

One of the critical tools that has helped us to do this is FISA. It allows intelligence agencies, acting under a FISA court order, to intercept terrorist calls abroad as well as their calls to terrorist cells in the United States. Some intercepts were needed immediately, and President Bush, soon after 9/11, authorized warrantless intercepts as needed in order to protect national security.

The New York Times exposed the warrantless activities in 2005, and the Democrats in Congress and their fellow travelers in the American Civil Liberties Union went ballistic -- charging that Bush was illegally spying on Americans.

Unfortunately, Bush, in a gesture of compromise, said he would seek warrants from the FISA court, but denied he had done anything illegal. Indeed, in the past, the federal courts have upheld such authority under the president's inherent constitutional powers to protect the nation.

But as the Wall Street Journal editorialized recently, "This has turned out to be an enormous mistake that has unilaterally disarmed one of our best intelligence weapons in the war on terror."

The reason: In the era of fiber optics and high-speed telecom systems, hundreds of millions of foreign messages and calls are run through U.S. telecommunications networks. A call from a terrorist abroad that is run through our phone network becomes a domestic call, and thus comes under FISA's delayed, time-consuming court-order restrictions.

As the Journal reported, "FISA judges have been open to expediting warrants, as well as granting retroactive approval. But there are 11 judges in the FISA rotation, and some have been demanding that intelligence officials get permission in advance for wiretaps. This means missed opportunities and less effective intelligence."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.