August 6, 2013
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
"Our intelligence professionals must be able to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they're planning," said the president. "The lives of countless Americans depend on our ability to monitor these communications."
He added that he would cancel his planned trip to Africa unless assured Congress would support the counterterrorism surveillance program.
The president was not Barack Obama. It was George W. Bush, in 2008, pressing Congress to extend and update reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). He was speaking directly to the American public, in an address broadcast live from the Oval Office.
How times have changed.
Back then, the President of the United States willingly led the fight for the programs he thought necessary to keep the nation safe. Now, our president sends underlings to make the case.
In distancing himself from the debate over PRISM (the foreign intelligence surveillance program made famous by the world-travelling leaker Edward Snowden), President Obama followed the precedent he established in May at the National Defense University.
There, he spoke disdainfully of drone strikes, the authorization to use military force against terrorists, and the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. All three are essential components of his counterterrorism strategy.
In distancing himself from his own strategy, Obama hoped to leave the impression that he is somehow above it all. He has dealt with the Snowden case the same way. When asked while traveling in Africa if he would take a role in going after the leaker, the president replied "I shouldn't have to."
The White House's above-it-all attitude sends seriously mixed messages to the American people, who are trying to figure if the government's surveillance programs are legal and appropriate.
Congress has not been much better.
The authority for PRISM is in FISA Section 702. Congress debated these authorities in 2007 and again when the program was reauthorized in 2008.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., surely remembers the controversy. He wrote President Bush: "There is no crisis that should lead you to cancel your trip to Africa. But whether or not you cancel your trip, Democrats stand ready to negotiate a final bill, and we remain willing to extend existing law for as short a time or as long a time as is needed to complete work on such a bill." Evidently, Reid must have felt the authorities granted under Section 702 received a full and sufficient hearing.
Most current members of Congress were seated under the dome during the 2008 debates. They had every opportunity not just to read the law, but to be briefed on the program by intelligence officials before voting on the bill. For them to act shocked at the scope of the program today rings about as hollow as Obama's expressed disdain for the operations he oversees.
The reality is that Congress and the administration share responsibility for these programs. If they want to change or modify them, who's stopping them?
If changes are made, however, they should to be made for the right reason. Leaders must never compromise our security for political expediency.
At least 60 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots have been aimed at the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. The overwhelming majority have been thwarted thanks to timely, operational intelligence about the threats. Congress should not go back to a pre-/11 set of rules just to appeal to populist sentiment.
Congress and the White House have an obligation to protect our liberties and to safeguard our security -- in equal measure. Meeting that mission is more important than winning popularity polls.
- James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Examiner
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 450,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2014, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973