While it may have escaped the notice of some members of Congress and maybe even some members of the media, there only remains two legislative days before the Protect America Act (FISA legislation) expires on February 1. This politically charged but vital legislation provides the authorization and warrant process intelligence officials must follow when tracking terrorist activities that lead into U.S. borders. Sources on the Hill express to me doubt that any legislation will emerge from the Intelligence Committees of the House and Senate before the bill expires.

In August, Congress updated the FISA laws but demanded a sunset to these provisions. The original FISA legislation has been updated many times in the past to keep pace with changes in technology from when the law was first drafted in 1978. Without these latest legislative changes, though, our intelligence agencies lose their ability to keep up with technology advances in the high-stakes, fast-paced field of terrorist surveillance. It is really that simple.

In the January 21st edition of the New Yorker, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said there were three things he needed in the updated legislation to do his job:

  • Not requiring a warrant to execute surveillance on a foreign person in a foreign country;
  • Ensuring private sector companies have liability protection when they participate in national security programs;
  • Requiring a warrant whenever a person in the United States is the object of surveillance.

This legislation provides the right forum and a perfect opportunity for members of both parties to express their concerns and provide insight on how the sixteen agencies that make up the intelligence community can better perform their duties. Unfortunately, as this legislation languishes in committee because neither body of Congress wants to take on this political hot potato, time passes and opportunities to intercept our adversaries are missed.

This afternoon, Senate Leader Harry Reid asked for another 30 days to look at the law. I am one of many who do not see what 30 days will get us that we do not already have. It is better to use the next two legislative days to make the changes made in August permanent, especially considering the trend of terrorist strikes near national elections (think Spain).

I do not take lightly the importance of our civil liberties, and I have spent a career protecting them as an intelligence officer. That is why I think the most important thing we can do is to have an honest public debate on domestic intelligence – one that is taken more seriously than a 30-day extension and one that I do not believe can happen in Congress in today’s environment.