Mr. President, last April the Director of National Intelligence, ADM Mike McConnell, warned Congress about a serious flaw in the laws that govern our Nation's terror-fighting capabilities. New technologies had made our old electronic surveillance program dangerously out of date, he said, causing us to miss substantial amounts of vital intelligence on foreign terror suspects overseas.
In reaction to these concerns, the Senate passed and the President signed a temporary measure, the Protect America Act. The Protect America Act lived up to its name. We are told that from the time of its passage last August until its expiration in February, it allowed us to collect significant intelligence on terrorists and has been critical in protecting the United States from harm. But the Protect America Act had a signal failure: the telecom companies that may have helped prevent terrorist attacks were not protected from potentially crippling lawsuits. This was no small thing since without these companies, America wouldn't even have an effective surveillance program. Bankrupting the telecoms would be like outlawing fire hydrants--you could have the best firetrucks and the best firemen in the world, but you would still be incapable of putting out fires.
So after several months of new negotiations, the House finally devised and approved last week a revision of the original surveillance law that addresses the DNI's major concerns, including the important telecom protection. As the DNI put it in a recent letter endorsing the House-passed bill:
This bill would provide the intelligence community with the tools it needs to collect the foreign intelligence necessary to secure our Nation while protecting the civil liberties of Americans. The bill would also provide the necessary legal protections for those companies sued because they are believed to have helped the government prevent terrorist attacks in the aftermath of September 11. Because this bill accomplishes these two goals, essential to any effort to modernize FISA, we strongly support passage and will recommend the President sign it.
That is the Director of National Intelligence.
Passage of this legislation is long overdue. When the Protect America Act expired in February, the DNI warned Democratic leaders in the House once again about the need for an updated law. Yet House Democrats were evidently more concerned about the pressure they were getting from left wing groups such as moveon.org. They brushed the DNI's warnings aside and refused to take up and pass a bipartisan Senate-passed compromise bill that would have easily cleared the House. As a result of Democratic intransigence, our intelligence community has been handicapped in its ability to acquire new terrorist targets overseas. This was grossly irresponsible, and many of us said so at the time.
Now more than a year after the DNI made his initial plea, House Democrats have finally done the right thing. They have acted on the DNI's warnings by passing an updated surveillance law that meets his original criteria and which meets the criteria Republicans laid out during last year's debate--namely, one that gives the intelligence community the tools it needs to protect us, which doesn't put the telecom companies that made this program possible out of business, and which would get a Presidential signature.
Now it is time for the Senate to take up this bill and pass it without any further delay. The bill isn't perfect. I would have preferred for the Speaker to allow a vote on the Senate-passed FISA bill. But it does meet the DNI's criteria, and therefore its passage will mark a serious achievement, though long overdue, in the interest of our national security.
This hard-fought bill represents the epitome of compromise. The senior Senator from Missouri should be singled out for his outstanding work on this most important piece of legislation. He has done a service to the Senate and to the Nation by patiently working all of this out over the course of more than a year.
He was assisted in that effort by very able staff. Louis Tucker, Jack Livingston, and Kathleen Rice were invaluable throughout the process, to every Senator who was involved in this extremely important debate. They also deserve our thanks.
I will support this bill for all the reasons I have mentioned and urge my colleagues to do the same. We must pass this before leaving town and not allow it to be held up by yet another Democratic filibuster.