Last week, in the words of Nancy Pelosi, House Democrats struck back against "fear" and "fear-mongering." They let the terrorist surveillance program expire, thus making a stirring gesture of national self-confidence and fearlessness.
House Democrats probably can't sustain their stand against renewing the program over the long term, so they will have managed a Pyrrhic defeat, losing on the policy and exposing a major political vulnerability for the fall.
President Bush compromised with Senate Democrats on a renewal of the surveillance program that passed by a 2-1 margin. The program monitors the communications of terrorist suspects outside the United States, which the president has the inherent authority to do. The legal and political controversy has arisen because many overseas communications now -- in the age of fiber optics -- travel through the United States and has gotten entangled with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
FISA plainly isn't meant to apply to foreign communications. Its purpose is to protect people in the United States from being targeted for national-security surveillance unless there is a finding of "probable cause" by a special FISA court that they are an agent of a foreign power. But a judge on that FISA court ruled early this past year that foreign communications must meet the same probable-cause standard under the law. According to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, our intelligence yield dropped off by a catastrophic two-thirds.
The urgency of the situation led to the quick passage this past summer of the Protect America Act that exempted foreign communications from FISA's restrictions. The act had a six-month sunset. The House has now let it expire.
House leaders shrug and say that the essential authorities remain in place for another six months. This is a dodge. We can continue to surveil current overseas targets, but can't pick up any new targets without FISA's onerous restrictions -- a severe hampering of our intelligence.
The real sticking point in the debate concerns retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that have been cooperating with the terrorist-surveillance program. They have been targeted with dozens of lawsuits seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in damages for alleged violations of civil liberties. The mere threat of these suits could be enough to prevent the companies from further cooperation with the government, allowing trial lawyers and civil-liberties groups to eviscerate the terrorist-surveillance program by lawsuit.
The Senate provided retroactive immunity in its compromise bill; a report from Democrat Jay Rockfeller's Select Committee on Intelligence sensibly concluded that immunity was necessary because "the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future without unnecessary court involvement and protracted litigation." The House balked.
House Democrats tell themselves they are striking a blow against the politics of fear. But only if we suffer another mass-casualty terror attack will a politics of untrammeled fear be unleashed on the land. Best to do all we can to avoid it, especially when it involves nonviolations of the nonrights of non-Americans.
It's not as though Democrats don't traffic in their own politics of fear. The hopeful Barack Obama summons a dark vision in his speeches of Americans denied economic opportunity and health care by lobbyists and callous corporations. Indeed, Exxon puts our planet "at risk." It's just that terrorists don't make his fright list. In his victory speech after the Potomac Primary, Obama warned of using "9/11 to scare up votes," and said that "we need to end the mind-set that got us into war" -- i.e., relax about foreign threats.
Naturally, Obama opposed the Senate's FISA deal, and he even denounced the telecoms that have cooperated with U.S. intelligence as "special interests." Here is a major opening for John McCain. The Arizona Republican will never out-inspire anyone, but he can lead a serious national discussion of what we reasonably should fear, and how Obama, and the Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party of which he is the soaring avatar, discount it at our peril.