Al-Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri can put away his celebratory fruit juice, but he should keep it on ice. The House only narrowly defeated, on a bipartisan 205 to 217 vote, a resolution that would have stopped the NSA from collecting “metadata” on phone calls. Opponents of the NSA’s data collection efforts are vowing that the authority for the program will be allowed to expire in 2015.
If this is indeed what happens, it will make the job of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups seeking to attack the U.S. appreciably easier. This would amount to unilateral disarmament in the war on terror by taking away one of the most valuable tools that the U.S. government has to detect terrorist plots. Privacy concerns have been raised, understandably, about the NSA maintaining a log of all phone calls even if it doesn’t have access to the contents of those conversations without a court order. But there is not a single documented instance of that authority being misused and a number of public examples of how those efforts have thwarted terrorist plots.
That is why a bipartisan group of former intelligence and security officials–including former Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzalez, former CIA directors Michael Hayden and Porter Goss, and former National Security Adviser James Jones–have issued a public letter calling on Congress to support not only the phone call metadata-collection program but the other program exposed by Edward Snowden, the one that keeps tabs on foreigners’ Internet activity.
“We are convinced that both programs are vitally important to our national security,” they write, adding: “We firmly believe that there is no need to make dramatic changes in existing law or to require fundamental alterations in these programs or in the FISA process. We all know that new international dangers arise continuously, and the evolving threat environment confronting the United States requires the firm maintenance of these capabilities into the future.”
Many members of the House, it seems, disagree–but then they don’t have the actual responsibility of stopping terrorist attacks. That is someone else’s job. House members are free to grandstand about civil liberties, confident that if an attack does occur, they will not be blamed for it.