March 17, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Politics Doesn't Stop-Even for National Security

Picture this: Two terrorists abroad are communicating over email/IM plotting a potential strike in New York City and the surrounding areas. The government knows that this communication is going to take place, but can't do anything.

A scene from the latest Hollywood action blockbuster? No, unfortunately this scene is a lot closer to truth than fiction because of Congress' continued bickering and procrastination. Above all, it's clear that politics doesn't stop -- even for national security.

The issue at hand is the Foreign Intelligence Security Act. Passed by Congress in 1978, it allows national spy agencies like the CIA to eavesdrop on conversations of known or suspected terrorists.

A court that administers that law made a controversial decision last summer that affected the way our spies can eavesdrop on foreign electronic communications, but Congress fixed that bad decision with the Protect America Act. Thanks to this important piece of legislation, our spy agencies have been equipped with the appropriate tools to keep our homeland safe.

But like many laws, Congress included an expiration date when passing this law. Surely keeping our homeland safe from a potential terrorist attack should guarantee smooth passage, correct?

Wishful thinking. Congress missed the deadline to re-authorize the PAA law.

Opposition to the bill has been mostly led by privacy activists and their allies in Congress who are afraid that we may be setting a dangerous precedent. Indeed, Congress should not hand the government a blank check, allowing warrantless spying encroaching on our privacy rights.

Unfortunately, this argument is seriously undermined when we consider that Congress has had more than six months to have a healthy debate on the measure. Instead, lawmakers waited until the very last minute to have a serious public dialogue on the issue. And when faced with having to make a decision at crunch time, the House of Representatives chose to leave for vacation.

Since then, the Bush administration has been left in legal limbo.

Though some parts of the law remain in effect for now, our spies don't know what they'll be able to do in the future. This is why temporary extensions aren't good enough -- they don't let intelligence officials fighting terrorism to do the kind of long-term planning necessary to track down terrorists and unravel their schemes. Our spy agencies have been effectively handicapped at being able to do their most vital task -- protect the homeland and keep our citizens safe.

Even to the most casual observer, it's becoming painfully clear that Congress has been woefully inadequate in getting anything accomplished. And yet even when faced with an issue of paramount importance like national security, Congress was unable to put aside politics to come to a sensible compromise for the good of the country.

Being a public elected official representing large and diverse interests is no easy task. Public elected officials are forced to make thousands of important votes involving the lives of countless ordinary citizens. And yet, public elected officials sign up knowing full well the awesome responsibilities that come with the job.

Protecting our homeland and keeping our citizens safe should take precedence over politics.

Let's hope that there's a happy ending for this Hollywood movie.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at the Heritage Foundation and has more than half a decade working in Congress and Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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First appeared in New York City's El Diario La Prensa