There is no higher responsibility for anyone elected to federal office than keeping Americans safe from foreign attack. We have a variety of tools for doing so, from our brave men and women in our Armed Forces, to our diplomatic corps, to our intelligence services.
Of all the people who spend their days and nights working to keep us safe, none are as important as those who collect and analyze intelligence about our enemies. No weapon in war is more powerful than information. And that is why the upcoming reauthorization of the Protect America Act might be one of the most important congressional debates we undertake this year.
Here’s where we stand today. The Protect America Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President just a few months ago. It was designed to modernize how our intelligence agencies collect and share vital data in an era when our enemies are as likely to communicate via email or cell phones as they are to meet in person. The provisions of the act allow for American intelligence services to monitor electronic communications coming in or out of the United States without having to wait for a court order. In other words, if al Qaeda is calling a sleeper cell in our country, the Protect America Act makes sure our government can monitor that call without any undue roadblocks. The Act sets very specific procedures for such surveillance, and ensures the independent intelligence court system is kept fully apprised. In other words, it was carefully written to give the men and women in our intelligence community the tools they need to keep us safe while still protecting the civil liberties that keep us free.
Throughout the history of our republic we have always been concerned about the proper balance between security and freedom. Those who are generally concerned about the power of government to trample on the rights of free citizens when necessity dictates are right to insist on maintaining the individual civil liberties afforded by our Constitution, most especially in times of crisis. The Protect America Act now being contemplated by the US Congress is precisely concerned with maintaining such protections. Indeed, this Act is simply a modern update to more effectively implement the goals of the original FISA law as passed in 1978.
Unfortunately, Democrats in Congress decided that the provisions of the Protect America Act should only be temporary. Right now, they are set to expire in February, and the bill that Democrats are proposing to replace them is inadequate. It will severely weaken the ability of our government to perform its most critical duty: keeping Americans safe in our daily lives.
The safety of the American people cannot be a partisan, political issue. Members of Congress must come together to present the President with a bill he can sign: a bill that will let us sleep more soundly at night, knowing we maintain the vital tools to defend ourselves against a ruthless enemy intent on killing Americans. We must come together to create a bill that equips our intelligence community with the tools it needs to protect our citizens.
The obvious starting place for any legislation to keep us safe is the bill passed last August. Democrats were willing to vote for it then. But now, they are changing their minds as the liberal elements of their party begin to make noise. They’ve decided that the provisions passed in August – provisions that are working right now to keep us safe – are too tough. But how tough on the terrorists is too tough? As long as we protect our own civil liberties – and the bill passed in August bends over backwards to do exactly that – then why soften it? Why create more loopholes that will put roadblocks in the way of our intelligence services as they work to protect us? We need a permanent solution that will ensure that the men and women working to keep us safe are given every advantage we can offer in fighting a brutal enemy.
Of course, protecting the civil liberties of American citizens is also important to all of us. We must work together to find a balance that guarantees our rights and freedoms without engaging in a suicide pact that unnecessarily allows our enemies to take open advantage of our free society. We must not allow the terrorists outside our country to benefit from the rights and liberties Americans fight for and celebrate. We have placed freedom as the cornerstone of our way of life, but to extend the protection of our constitutional liberties to foreign terrorists who seek our destruction is grossly unwarranted and unwise if we are to be successful in combating international terrorism.
We have made significant progress in securing our homeland since September 11, and we have learned valuable lessons about the enemy along the way. Now we must strengthen our ability to perform the most essential duty of governance, and to protect ourselves from those who seek to do us harm. Reauthorizing the Protect America Act instead of watering it down is the right way to do that.