If these were the old days of newspapering, we’d love to shout: “Stop the Presses!” That’s a phrase normally reserved for late-breaking, jaw-dropping news.
What shocking event has inspired our outburst in the digital age? Only that Congressional Democrats and Republicans have worked together to advance a vital surveillance bill that helps keep America safe.
Under the program, 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.
That possibility upsets privacy hawks in both parties, who sought tough new limits on American surveillance. But more moderate lawmakers on both sides stiff-armed opponents because they feared, rightly, that weakening the program would hobble terror investigations.
Yes, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate cooperated with each other to achieve an important goal. Bravo.
Let’s slow this down and savor what is likely to be a fleeting moment of bipartisanship.
Last week the House voted 256-164 to renew this vital program with an unwieldy moniker: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act.
House lawmakers did so even after President Donald Trump issued a series of contradictory and monumentally uninformed tweets about the program that could have jeopardized passage of the bill.
In one tweet, Trump appeared to question his own administration’s support for the program. He finally made himself clear: “… today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!”
On Tuesday, the Senate overcame the threat of a filibuster, 60-38. That’s 18 Democrats, 41 Republicans and 1 independent. Fittingly, a bipartisan duo — Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisana and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri — provided the final votes to proceed. A final Senate vote to reauthorize Section 702 is expected soon, perhaps Thursday.
Americans seeking signs that lawmakers from both parties can cooperate to advance America’s national security interests now have one strong piece of evidence. For some members of Congress, particularly Democrats buffeted by the left wing of their party, this was a gutsy vote.
Washington isn’t known for getting things done. The atmosphere is “toxic,” U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley of Chicago tells us. But Section 702 transcended political turf fights because it “is a vital tool for our intel community,” says Quigley, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “I can list specific examples of people and threats that were thwarted by 702.” One case previously highlighted: Intelligence collected under Section 702 helped prevent al-Qaida’s Najibullah Zazi from launching a suicide bombing on a New York City subway.
Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia also reminded lawmakers before the Tuesday vote that U.S. intelligence has used the surveillance law to track down terrorists abroad. Case in point: the 2016 killing of Islamic State’s second-ranking leader, Abdul-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, also known as Haji Imam, in a U.S.-backed military raid in Syria.
Those are just the successes we’ve heard about. We don’t know what other violent plots have been thwarted but remain secret.
Six years from now, the law comes up for renewal. We wish it a stellar record of success — and continued bipartisan support.
This editorial was written by the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune. This editorial does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.