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Senators Have Wires Crossed on Security

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Friday, October 02, 2009

On Tuesday, Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan immigrant who was a teenager in Queens during the Sept. 11 attacks, pleaded not guilty to federal terrorism conspiracy charges in New York.

This is a scary story. Police stopped and searched Zazi's rented car on the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 10, as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks loomed and President Obama was about to join world leaders at a U.N. confab.

According to the U.S. attorney's office, Zazi flew to Pakistan in August 2008 to receive bomb-making instructions, returned to use the Internet and nine pages of handwritten bomb-making notes he had e-mailed himself from Pakistan to purchase and mix triacetone triperoxide (TATP) -- the explosive used in the 2005 London transit bombings that killed 52 commuters.

Prosecutors have announced that they will use communications obtained under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows for secret wiretapping for national security reasons. The New York Daily News reported that authorities had been watching Zazi for more than a year after a "lucky hit" wiretap caught Zazi communicating with Osama bin Laden's followers.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a group of Democratic senators are working to undermine FISA. Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; introduced the Retroactive Immunity Repeal Act that would make the country free again for lawyers who want to sue telephone companies for cooperating with the federal government.

As Dodd said in a news release: "We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security."

Wrong; it is a very real choice. As Heritage Foundation fellow Jena Baker McNeill told me, allowing lawyers to sue telecommunication companies "would probably chill their willingness to participate in national security investigations" -- which is not good because "the government can't do this without their participation."

McNeill co-authored a Heritage paper in July that reported that 23 terrorist attacks have been foiled since 9/11. With Zazi's recent arrest -- and that of two would-be bombers in Illinois and Texas -- the number of thwarted attacks today would be 26.

Where does President Obama stand? In 2008, after he won the Democratic primary, Obama flip-flopped on a promise to filibuster any FISA reauthorization bill that granted telecom companies immunity to lawsuits. Obama was one of 69 senators who voted for the FISA bill -- immunity wart and all.

Leahy argued that he opposed that bill because it "stripped Americans of their right to seek accountability for the Bush administration's decision to illegally wiretap American citizens without a warrant."

Where is the accountability in squeezing companies that did what the government told them to do? Especially after Washington passed a law that granted them immunity last year?

With what is at stake, why would any U.S. senator want to give phone companies a reason not to cooperate with law enforcement?

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