Writing to President Bush regarding vital reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), House Intelligence Committee Chair Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) noted that the Preamble to our Constitution states that one of the highest duties of public officials is to “provide for the common defense.” Reyes goes on to claim that he works “everyday to ensure that our defense and intelligence capabilities remain strong” and demands that the House be given more time to debate the telecommunication company protections passed by an overwhelming bipartisan margin in the Senate. Reyes fails to mention that the House has had 194 days to debate this issue since temporary FISA reforms were passed last August and he does not explain why House demands for another 21-day extension will be any different than the 15-day extension the White House agreed to on Feb. 1.

Instead of actually debating this issue yesterday, the House instead chose to vote on contempt citations for White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers. This choice of how to use their precious time perfectly underscores the real priorities of the House leadership: scoring cheap political points against the White House is more important than settling real policy debates that affect our national security.

Passed in 1978, FISA requires court permission to tap wires inside the United States. Changes in technology since then mean much of the world’s computer and phone traffic passes through the United States, much of it on fiber-optic cable. Acknowledging that seeking individual warrants to monitor foreign communications passing through these cables would be to burdensome on our intelligence agencies, Congress passed temporary FISA reform in August. That law allows the government to initiate surveillance on identified targets for one year and protected telecommunications companies from lawsuits. If the law expires, the government would be forced to use the hopelessly out of date 1978 law when they wanted to initiate surveillance on new groups.

In addition to throwing our intelligence surveillance legal framework back into the ’70s, the House leadership also wants to punish the telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government after 9/11 by not immunizing them from $30 billion worth of lawsuits. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence produced an in-depth report on the issue and concluded: “[W]ithout retroactive immunity, the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future without unnecessary court involvement and protracted litigation. The possible reduction in intelligence that might result from this delay is simply unacceptable for the safety of our Nation.”

President Bush has offered to delay his trip to Africa to work with the House on this important issue. Hopefully the House will end their 194-day delay and act on FISA reform before the necessary reforms expire at midnight tonight.

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