On January 18th, America lost a gifted corporate leader, generous philanthropist and great patriot, Terrence Elkes. I was one of many who also lost a beloved friend.
Terry’s passing marks something else – a further diminution of one of those most endangered of species: Democrats who are national security-minded and find themselves increasingly unrepresented by their party’s national leadership and would-be presidential candidates.
While Mr. Elkes climbed the highest peaks of the nation’s capitalist system, including a transformative stint as president and CEO of Viacom, he never forgot where he came from: the Bronx. Like virtually all Americans of modest backgrounds – whether native- or foreign-born – who have translated their intelligence, enterprising spirit and hard work into considerable success, Terry treasured his country as a land of truly unrivaled opportunity.
Consequently, this product of New York’s public City College and the University of Michigan law school was passionately committed to safeguarding the United States from enemies, foreign and domestic. He was a serious student of history who recognized that in our time, as in previous eras, America had to confront evolving threats from totalitarian foes around the world.
As was true (at least temporarily) for millions of his countrymen, the murderous attacks of September 11, 2001 were to Terry Elkes a particular epiphany. He recognized that the perpetrators were determined not simply to unleash death and destruction on this country’s financial sector – a community he knew well – but to destroy the very nation itself. He understood that the ideology that animated them, Islamofascism, was much like those of previous totalitarians: ruthless, messianic and utterly determined to impose its repressive political system on all others, unless prevented from doing so.
For Terry, 9/11 was more. It was a personal call-to-arms, a charge to act so that, as he was fond of saying, his children and grandchildren could also live the American dream. He sought out those, including the Center for Security Policy, who shared his commitment to advance robust and non-partisan approaches to providing for the national defense. He remained to his dying day a Democrat, but he was an American first.
How far Terry Elkes’ party has disenfranchised voters like him who long were the backbone of its membership – social liberals but hard-headed internationalists in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Henry “Scoop” Jackson – is evident at the moment in the fight underway in Congress over electronic intelligence collection.
In the wake of the 9/11’s deadly acts of war, George W. Bush did what one would hope any President would do: He strove to prevent follow-on strikes and brought to bear every available instrument for that purpose.
Preeminent among these was the collection of intelligence that might reveal further plots and the identity and whereabouts of those inclined to perpetrate them. Mr. Bush ordered the National Security Agency to monitor phone calls and data transmissions involving foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terror. In so doing, he exercised a well-established power of the Commander-in-Chief in time of war: monitoring the enemies’ battlefield communications. Given the nature of this particular war and of modern telecommunications, such monitoring had to include some individuals and selected intercepts in this country.
Under the circumstances, the President also did something else anyone in his position would be expected to do. He asked for help from U.S. telephone companies in keeping America safe.
In the years that followed, Islamist-sympathizers and their allies on the anti-American Left have pursued a strategy of litigating and legislating designed to impede such wartime intelligence collection. Worse yet, they sought to penalize public-spirited companies for having responded to the President’s necessary, and legal, appeal for assistance. Such plaintiff’s bar overreach is reminiscent of the attempt by a Justice Department-designated Muslim Brotherhood front organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to sue several “John Does” – ordinary Americans who simply did what their government asked them to do in reporting the suspicious behavior of six “Flying Imams” prior to a US Air flight in November 2006.
At this writing, the U.S. Senate is embroiled in the latest round of this fight. Senators Patrick Leahy and Christopher Dodd are among those trying to prevent passage of a bill that was adopted 13-2 last year by the Senate intelligence committee on a broadly bipartisan basis. While not perfect, this legislation has the virtue of: making clear the President’s authority to engage in such battlefield communications intercepts; updating and circumscribing the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts given changes in telecommunications since they were established in 1979; and providing immunity from lawsuits for companies that facilitate such legal surveillance.
Terry Elkes Democrats are not represented by the likes of Pat Leahy and Chris Dodd. Nor are they comfortable with presidential candidates who inveigh against our government and the steps it takes to protect us all, while low-balling the threat that makes that protection essential.
In time of war, our country cannot afford to have one of its two major political parties at best AWOL on the major security issues of our time and, at worst, seriously wrongheaded about them. Behaving responsibly about FISA reform would be a good place to start for a loyal opposition that once enjoyed – and deserved – the support of Terry Elkes and so many others who share his commitment to bequeath to their heirs a secure and free nation of opportunity.