Don’t let House hold up intelligence law

On Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, U.S. officials intercepted conversations among al-Qaida operatives boasting in Arabic such sentiments as “The match begins tomorrow” and “Tomorrow is zero hour.” Those conversations were not translated until Wednesday, the 12th.

What a difference a day makes.

The intelligence failures that preceded the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, have been revisited many times since that fateful day, and rightly so. Terrorist plots against us may be planned anywhere in the world with the masterminds behind them communicating globally across networks that transmit infinitesimal amounts of data per day.

It does not stand to reason that we would allow minutes, let alone whole days, to go by without having the most up-to-date actionable intelligence on our enemies. Yet for three weeks now, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have done just that, failing to act on critical legislation that would give our intelligence agencies the tools they need to get the job done.

The calendar matters a great deal. While this bill continues to collect dust, another critical intelligence law — known as the Protect America Act — has expired, forcing our intelligence officials to operate with one hand tied behind their backs.

Adm. Mike McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, a former Clinton administration official, has said that allowing the Protect America Act to lapse has put our nation in “increased danger” and “it will increase more and more as time goes on.”

The intelligence community McConnell leads is made up ofthe best trained operatives in the world. Helping them stay one step ahead of the enemy is nothing short of a life-and-death matter. Making them play a dangerous game of catch-up is downright shameful.

Though more often than not in this era of chronic partisan gridlock, Republicans and Democrats find themselves on the opposite sides of the issues of the day, this is not one of those times.

The United States Senate — not known to be a body to act expeditiously — has already passed this bill by an overwhelming bipartisan margin of more than 2 to 1. The president of the United States is ready to sign it, and more than 20 members of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own caucus have taken the time to write her a letter saying they are ready to vote for it.

The emerging bipartisan consensus on this issue stems from the fact that the Senate bill contains the tools we need to stay on the offense against the Islamic extremist terrorist threat, including common-sense legal protections for telecommunications companies that assisted the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

This has been a much-debated matter, as it’s true that the cooperation of these companies is a critical component of our ability to carry out a successful terrorist surveillance program.

It is dead wrong, however, to look at granting the telecoms the immunity they seek as something to hold our noses over. It’s the right thing to do. These companies lent a hand to the government in the same way Americans would if asked to help track down those who have killed, or would seek to kill, innocent Americans. For their simple patriotic acts, the telecoms were rewarded with a barrage of big-dollar lawsuits from liberal special interest groups.

House Democrats’ refusal to act on the bipartisan Senate bill is, by any measure, a boon for the trial bar. Public records show that 66 lawyers who are suing the telecommunications companies for big money have also given $1.5 million campaign contributions to congressional Democrats. These trial lawyers certainly have a stake in seeing the Senate’s bipartisan compromise killed so that their cases can proceed.

Let’s face it: the failure to act over the last three weeks has also been a boon for the enemy, as House Democrats have, by their inaction, undermined our counterterrorism capability. Foreign terrorists have good reason to take comfort in the notion that the United States has for all intents and purposes unilaterally — and foolishly — disarmed itself in this titanic struggle.

It’s not too late for Democrat leaders in the House to resist the temptation to let their personal injury lawyer base take the reins of their agenda. One up-or-down vote on the bipartisan Senate intelligence bill is all it takes to put this issue behind us and keep our country safe.

Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the House Republican Conference, represents Florida’s 12th District in Congress.

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