Earlier this month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together to pass an economic growth package to help get our economy moving again. I hoped this same spirit of bipartisanship would extend to other critical issues, with our national security our first and foremost priority. Sadly, this was not to be.
On Thursday, House Democratic leaders left Washington for a 12-day break after failing to pass critical legislation designed to ensure that our intelligence officials are able to monitor foreign communications of suspected terrorists overseas, such as Osama Bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda leaders, while also adding critical liability protections for third parties who helped us defend our country. This measure had received strong bipartisan support in the Senate, and was on the verge of passing by a wide bipartisan margin in the House until Democratic leaders blocked it from coming to the floor for a vote.
Because of the Democrats’ inaction, the Protect America Act expired last night at midnight, forcing our intelligence officials to revert to the same terror surveillance laws that failed to protect America from the al-Qaeda terrorist attack on 9/11. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are still plotting against the United States and our allies, but now our intelligence officials don’t have all the tools they need to protect us. These laws didn’t safeguard America in 2001, so why would House Democrat leaders place our nation at risk by putting them back into effect now?
Some members of the House Majority believe there is no sense of urgency to address this crisis. But the New York Post recently reported a heartbreaking story about U.S. forces in Iraq having to wait 10 hours last May before they could begin searching for three American soldiers taken hostage by al Qaeda because lawyers here in the United States were hammering out the proper documents to get emergency permission for wiretaps. One of our soldiers was found dead, two others remain missing.
These unconscionable delays had real consequences. It should take exactly zero lawyers to rescue our troops. A strong bipartisan majority in the Senate understood this fact. The Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, put it this way:
“What people have to understand around here is that the quality of the intelligence we are going to be receiving is going to be degraded.” (Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Floor Remarks, 02/14/08)
The liability protections included in the bipartisan Senate bill are intended to ensure that patriotic third parties are not subject to frivolous lawsuits when they cooperate with our intelligence officials to help track terrorists. But already some trial lawyers are seeking millions of dollars, and now some third parties who have cooperated to help defend our country have indicated they can no longer do so voluntarily. This is wrong and we must fix it.
Much has been said about the U.S. Senate being the world’s most deliberative body, but in this case our colleagues proved that they can work quickly to pass good legislation that will keep America safe.
The consequences of inaction in the House and the failure to send a bill to the President are real. U.S. intelligence officials will not be able to begin new terrorist surveillance without needless and dangerous delays. If a previously unknown group were to attack or kidnap American soldiers tomorrow, U.S. forces would have to wait – again – for the lawyers to get permission before a search could begin. The families of the three soldiers abducted in May by al Qaeda can attest to how devastating waiting can be.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written and passed during the Cold War era, and in August Congress updated it to reflect the sophisticated and adaptive nature of the terrorist threat. We worked in a bipartisan manner to close a gaping loophole, one that had prohibited our intelligence officials to monitor all foreign communications of terrorists overseas. The only ones preventing us from working together in a bipartisan way again are House Democratic leaders and trial lawyers.
What was true then remains the same today: instead of shielding terrorists, we should be working to prevent future attacks. Refusing to give our intelligence officials all the tools they need to keep America safe is unacceptable. Refusing to extend protection from frivolous lawsuits to third parties that cooperate with the government to protect American lives and then leaving town for 12 days is also unacceptable.
The question now for House Democratic leaders is, how much longer are they prepared to protect their trial lawyer allies at the expense of our national security?