Opinion

Protect America - and the law

We don't buy Bush's scare tactics on surveillance.

By

Nothing is more important to the American people than our safety and our freedom. As the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, we have an enormous responsibility to protect both.

Unfortunately, instead of working with Congress to achieve the best policies to keep our country safe, once again President Bush has resorted to scare tactics and political games.

In November, the House passed legislation to give US intelligence agencies strong tools to intercept terrorist communications that transit the United States, while ensuring that Americans' private communications are not swept up by the government in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Recommended: FISA 101: 10 key dates in the evolution of NSA surveillance

More recently, the Senate passed similar legislation. The Senate bill also contains a provision to grant retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted the executive branch in conducting surveillance programs after Sept. 11, 2001.

While the four of us may have our differences on what language a final bill should contain, we agree on several points.

Our country did not "go dark" on Feb. 16 when the Protect America Act (PAA) expired. Despite Mr. Bush's overheated rhetoric on this issue, the government's orders under that act will last until at least August. No surveillance stopped.

If Bush truly believed that the expiration of the Protect America Act caused a danger, he would not have refused our offer of an extension.

In the remote possibility that a terrorist organization that we have never previously identified emerges, the National Security Agency (NSA) could use existing authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to track its communications. Since Congress passed FISA in 1978, the court governing the law's use has approved nearly 23,000 warrant applications and rejected only five. In an emergency, the NSA or FBI can begin surveillance immediately; a FISA court order does not have to be obtained for three days.

When US agencies provided critical intelligence to our German allies to disrupt a terrorist plot last summer, we relied on FISA authorities. Those who say that FISA is outdated do not appreciate the strength of this powerful tool.

So what's behind the president's "sky is falling" rhetoric?

It is clear that he and his allies, desperate to distract attention from the economy and other policy failures, are trying to use this issue to scare the American people into believing that congressional Democrats have left America vulnerable to terrorist attack.

But if our nation were to suddenly become vulnerable, it would not be because we don't have sufficient domestic surveillance powers. It would be because the Bush administration has done too little to defeat Al Qaeda, which has gained strength throughout the world. Many of our intelligence assets are being used to fight in Iraq instead of taking on Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization.

The president may try to change the subject by talking about surveillance laws, but we aren't buying it.

We are motivated to pass legislation governing surveillance because we believe this activity must be carefully regulated to protect Americans' constitutional rights. Companies that provide lawful assistance to the government in surveillance activities should be legally protected.

We are already working to reconcile the House and Senate bills and hope that our Republican colleagues will join us in the coming weeks to craft final, bipartisan legislation. A key objective of our effort is to build support for a law that gives our intelligence professionals not only the tools they need but also confidence that the legislation they will be implementing has the broad support of Congress and Americans.

We are united in our determination to produce responsible legislation that will protect America and protect our Constitution.

Jay Rockefeller, Patrick Leahy, Silvestre Reyes, and John Conyers are chairmen, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Judiciary Committee. © 2008 The Washington Post.

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