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Fear-mongering defeated

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Sometimes doing nothing is saying a lot. Kudos are deservedly due to members of Congress who let the ill-named Protect America Act expire rather than succumb to fear-mongering. The House on Wednesday declined to follow the Senate's footsteps and re-authorize the Act, which expired at sunset Saturday, February 16, 2008. Immediately, with cries of being “soft on terrorism,” the Bush Administration demanded that the House pass a bill giving immunity to telecommunications companies that illegally handed over the phone and email records of innocent Americans without a warrant.The legislation would have given the National Security Administration, the NSA,  warrantless access to virtually all communications of Americans with anyone outside the US, so long as the government declared that the surveillance was directed at people, which includes foreigners and citizens, reasonably believed to be located outside the US, a definition that covers billions of people. 

Notably, the Protect America Act of 2007 was a temporary measure enacted after a secret spying court ruled that the president's spying was illegal. That secret ruling came just months after Bush succumbed to political pressure and submitted the program to the court more than a year after the New York Times exposed its existence. Now, the president asserts that the expiration of the Act will pose an imminent security risk. Many leading security experts, however, disbelieve the President’s argument. The reason is obvious: the 1978 FISA Act  will remain in effect, enabling law enforcement wide powers to do its job. And if there are new targets, the FISA court has the power to give every authority to the administration to act. New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. warned 'that no American can be the target of surveillance under this bill unless an individual warrant is obtained from the FISA Court. He further warned "that no American, regardless of their foreign family connections, can be the target of surveillance without an individual warrant being obtained from the FISA Court.

Many members of Congress and civil rights organizations, including the American Arab Forum, offered alternative language to the proposed bill. The Bush Administration rejected all reasonable efforts to require that such surveillance be focused on foreigners, be directed at terrorist targets or be limited to protecting against international terrorism.  More importantly, the administration has not sufficiently demonstrated that the bill would benefit intelligence or the men and women in the intelligence community. The Bush Administration played the fear card and, this time, fortunately, their trick was exposed.

It is a rarity that Congress acts so decisively to preserve our liberty and Constitution. Often political and partisan considerations impede their good judgment. This time around, by standing against the President's ill-conceived demands, Congress, including most of NJ's delegation, stood by our Constitution.  Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), in a recent letter to Pres. Bush wrote, "We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution." Instead of trying to arrive at a workable comprise with Congress, the President is taking a lead role in scaring Americans into believing that less liberty will ensure greater security for all. History has shown that all knee-jerk legislation, including provisions of the heinous 2001 Patriot Act and the new FISA legislation are exposed for their shortsightedness and inability to achieve their stated objectives. We recall how many Senators and Congressmen admitted to being so emotionally driven and lacking full knowledge of those legislations before they cast their YES  vote.

For far too long, this President has been trying to expand his power at the expense of our freedom and the Constitution, while doing little to actually protect our nation. A meaningful debate between Congress and the President will not weaken American security; extrajudicial spying on our citizens will. As Benjamin Franklin so tellingly opined two hundred years ago, those who sacrifice liberty for the sake of security deserve neither. Our strength lays in our respect for the Constitution, not fear-mongering and fear politics.  

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Dr. Aref Assaf (PhD, Political Science and International Law) is president and founder of American Arab Forum, AAF, a non partisan think-tank specializing in advocating positive image of the American Arab community. Dr. Assaf was also a founding (more...)

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