The security of the nation should not be held hostage to political gamesmanship. Congress should extend the Protect America Act for as long as necessary until a more measured and responsible alternative can be put in its place.
Last August, Congress bowed to relentless White House pressure to enact the Protect America Act, a sweeping overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorized the government to intercept—without a court order—the international communications of Americans who have no connection to terrorism or espionage. The administration never provided a satisfactory rationale for these extraordinary powers, but warned that if Congress failed to approve them, the nation would be imperiled.
With the PAA set to expire on February 1, the White House has used the same scare tactics to demand that Congress enact long-term legislation that perpetuates its key provisions.
This time, the House has refused to be intimidated. It passed the RESTORE Act, a moderate and balanced bill that would give the government all the authority it needs to monitor foreign terrorists and spies without needlessly infringing the freedoms of law-abiding Americans.
The administration prefers a bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which contains few safeguards to protect innocent Americans from being spied on by their government. In addition, the Senate bill would grant immunity to telecommunications companies facing lawsuits for allegedly cooperating in the illegal wiretapping program that the president secretly authorized after 9/11. Such a provision is dangerous and unnecessary. Companies that obey the law are already immune from suit under FISA. Those that break the law should not have their bad behavior rewarded. Moreover, by making it impossible to hold either the companies or the government accountable, blanket immunity would undermine the critical role played by service providers in ensuring that the government presents proper documentation before being given access to customer communications.
The president has repeatedly warned of dire consequences if the PAA is allowed to lapse. Yet in an effort to pressure Congress to accept the Senate bill, he has threatened to veto a short-term extension of the PAA that would prevent this from happening. This means that either the dire consequences are a deception or he is willing to put the nation at risk to have his way on immunity. In either case, Congress should do the responsible thing and pass an extension now while it continues its deliberations. Then it will be up to the president to decide whether to carry out his threat.