In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, America pursued two wars. One was a major military campaign to rout al-Qaida from Afghanistan and kill terrorists everywhere. The other was covert: a dramatically ramped-up electronic surveillance program to ferret out extremists and thwart their plots.
Congress approved key laws for both. Now Congress is again debating whether, and how, those laws should be renewed.
The first, and most crucial, has a mouthful of a name: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. It expires at year’s end if Congress doesn’t act.
Under 702, U.S. authorities work with telecom companies to secretly gather phone and electronic communications of foreigners outside the United States. In doing so, some emails, phone calls and texts of American citizens may also be incidentally swept into the net.
Privacy advocates want Congress to require government officials to obtain warrants in order to search for and access the content of Americans’ phone calls and emails obtained under the law. Those who favor privacy reforms say they will help shield the communications of American citizens from federal prying.
Those who favor leaving the law largely as is, including the FBI and President Donald Trump, counter that these reforms would create more hurdles for authorities and hamper terror investigations. They say that current safeguards to prevent abuses are sufficient.
In the past, we’ve argued against anything that threatens to slow or derail terror investigations. We’ll stand by that. We like the outlines of a bipartisan bill that would renew 702; it’s called the USA Liberty Act, which recently advanced from the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, because it preserves the government’s maximum latitude to pursue conspirators.
There’s widespread agreement that this program has been vital in protecting America. In one instance, intelligence collected under Section 702 helped prevent al-Qaida’s Najibullah Zazi from launching a suicide bombing on the New York City subway, according to Thomas Bossert, White House homeland security adviser. Section 702 is too important to be crippled by politics or fear of potential abuses. We urge Congress to renew the law and ensure that these investigations are not impeded.
The other national security law Congress should renew: Just after 9/11, Congress authorized the president to use military force against nations, groups or individuals in response to the attacks. This is known as the AUMF — Authorization for Use of Military Force. Even though lawmakers may have thought they were greenlighting a limited use of force against specific enemies, three presidents have invoked its authority to justify battling terrorists around the globe.
In 2015, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a new resolution authorizing the use of force against Islamic State. Lawmakers failed to act, but the earlier AUMF remains in force.
Earlier this year, lawmakers objected when President Trump carried out an act of war — a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian military airfield — without congressional consent. Congressional action in response: None. A move to repeal the AUMF stalled quickly.
Now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins a debate over a renewal of the law. The latest flashpoint: four American troops killed in Niger in a fight against Islamic terrorists.
We’ve watched Congress duck a vote on this issue for years. Lawmakers know that military actions can be messy and unpopular. They figure if things go well, they can always cheer. If things go poorly, well, the president gets the blame for recklessness and poor planning, don’t you see?
We don’t think Congress should restrict the president’s powers, but we do believe lawmakers should weigh in on vital matters of national defense. A more limited AUMF also could restrain a president who has a tweet-first, think-later approach to foreign policy.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee, recently said he feared that Trump’s reckless threats against other nations could set the U.S. “on the path to World War III.” What better reason for Congress to act now?
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