The highest priority of Members of Congress – on both sides of the aisle – is to protect our nation and to uphold our Constitution. Congress and the President must work together to come to an agreement that modernizes FISA. I remain committed to detecting, identifying and defeating terrorists and to preserving the freedoms that define America. Thus, it is disappointing that President Bush and his allies have chosen to play politics and to misrepresent the facts in the continuing debate on updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
FISA was passed by Congress in 1978 in response to President Nixon's abusive use of wiretaps against his political adversaries and the press. The existing FISA law has protected American citizens both from foreign terrorism and from infringement on their Constitutional right to privacy. Intelligence agencies should have the tools to intercept cellular or fiber optic communications through switches in the US while protecting Americans' rights.
Unfortunately, President Bush is using scare tactics in an attempt to bully Congress on this issue, much like he did in the build up to the war in Iraq. He has repeatedly made statements that officials within his administration and outside experts have indicated are untrue. Since the President and his allies are likely to continue these attacks, it is important to separate myth from fact.
The President continually states that with the expiration of the Protect America Act (PAA) last month, the capability of intelligence agencies to track terrorists will be weakened. The fact is that authorizations ordered under the PAA to conduct surveillance will continue for at least six months, and in some cases for up to one year. All known terrorist organizations and targets are already included in those orders, and new targets can be added quickly. Here's the bottom line—if a terrorist was being tracked a month ago, he can still be tracked today.
The President also claims that intelligence efforts are impeded by a requirement to obtain a warrant in a FISA court. The fact is that a FISA court order can be obtained up to three days AFTER intelligence collection has already begun. In the 30 year history of the FISA courts, the government has asked for over 23,000 warrants, and only five have been denied. Obtaining a warrant from a FISA court when there is concern that an American will be overheard during collection of evidence is clearly not a high hurdle.
Last November, the House passed a strong, balanced FISA bill, and I supported it. However, it was opposed by President Bush and his Republican allies in the Senate and did not become law. I will not support any FISA legislation that lets the executive branch alone decide who is a terrorist suspect and to forego judicial warrants altogether. This would completely undermine the system of checks and balances that is the bedrock of our Constitution. I also will not support a FISA bill that gives legal immunity to telecom companies who cooperated with the Bush Administration's efforts to overstep its authority.
The debate over FISA is extremely important and President Bush will not make America stronger or safer by attempting to stampede Congress into accepting a severely flawed bill. I will work quickly with my colleagues and the President to pass a strong bill that protects our nation and our civil liberties, and I will never let my family or yours be put at risk.
Congressman John Hall