Washington, D.C. — In 1988, singer and songwriter Bobby McFerrin penned a Grammy-winning tune, “Don't Worry, Be Happy.” When it comes to collecting intelligence on America's enemies, Mr. McFerrin's pleasant a cappella is now the theme song for Democrats in the House of Representatives.
On February 14, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to send the House home on vacation instead of voting on extending the Protect America Act (PAA), a measure that had already passed the U.S. Senate 68-29. The bill, among other things, provides civil immunity for private companies that assist U.S. intelligence agencies in intercepting terrorist communications to, from or through the United States. With the House adjourned, the PAA expired, and Americans became instantly more vulnerable.
As might be expected in the midst of a presidential election year, Republicans and administration officials immediately went to the airwaves and print to decry Ms. Pelosi's decision. National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell took the unusual step of appearing on FOX News to point out that termination of the PAA “introduces a level of uncertainty that is going to be very difficult for us.”
Now, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) — who backed the bill in the Senate — assures us that he's “going to work something out” with his House colleagues, but he refuses to speculate on how long this might take. Meanwhile private sector telecom executives, wary of legal assaults from shareholders and “public interest” groups, are understandably reluctant to assist U.S. officials in breaking into terrorist communications. Concerns over what we may be missing — and the immediate risk of a major terrorist attack — go well beyond Washington politics.
Given the enormous flow of global voice and data communications, any interruption or delay in collecting “signals intelligence” jeopardizes the ability of analysts to determine and disseminate whether, where, how and when a terrorist organization may be planning an attack. That's what happened in the months leading up to 9-11-01, and the kind of vulnerability the PAA was designed to redress. Here's why U.S. and allied defense, security and intelligence officers are so worried about being deaf and blind right now:
On January 28, Libyan terrorist Abu Laith al-Libi, No. 3 in al Qaeda, was killed by a missile strike in Waziristan province, Pakistan. The weapon is widely presumed to have been fired from a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). On February 27, Ayman al-Zawahiri, No. 2 in Osama bin Laden's world-wide organization, vowed vengeance in a 10-minute video placed on radical Islamic Web sites: “No chief of ours has died a natural death. Nor has our blood been spilled without a response.” What that response might be we may never know until after it has happened. And that's not all.
On February 12, Imad Mugniyah, the man responsible for murdering and kidnapping hundreds of Americans in Lebanon and elsewhere, was killed when his car exploded in Damascus, Syria. Both Israel and the United States have been blamed for the terror-chieftain's death. Since then, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has promised to “avenge our martyred brother.” Muhammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has vowed “retribution” and Ayatollah Khamenei has pledged “destruction on the illegal Zionist entity and their supporters.”
Two days after Mr. Mugniyah's fiery demise, the Iranians cancelled a previously scheduled “private discussion” with U.S. officials in Baghdad over the situation in Iraq. On February 20, at a rally in Bandar Abbas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described Israel as “a filthy bacteria” and lashed out at “other nations which have allowed it to grow.” Then on February 23, the theocrats running Tehran warned of “firm reprisals” against any country trying to impose new sanctions on Iran for proceeding with their nuclear program. Since then, the Iranian regime has confirmed that the March 2 visit by Mr. Ahmadinejad to Baghdad will be “historic for the changes it will bring to the region.”
That's just what these “leaders” are saying in public. What they may or may not be saying in private about plans for attacks against American citizens we may not know until it is too late. For that, we can thank Madam Pelosi and her decision to postpone action on the PAA.
Those who claim that this delay won't hurt us should heed the warning proffered this week by General Amos Yadlin, the Chief of Israeli Military Intelligence. Testifying before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee on February 26, the normally tight-lipped General forecast: “Hezbollah will likely time its reprisals for the 40th day of mourning for its commander, Imad Mughiyah. That will be March 22-23.”
Terror leaders like those in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Tehran, who want to know our secrets, need only subscribe to the Washington Post or the New York Times. For the United States, the mission of finding out what our enemies are planning to do to us before they have a chance to do it has always been a challenge. That task has become far more difficult because of the Democrats running our House of Representatives. “Don't worry, be happy,” indeed.
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. "Counterfeit Lies," is his novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North.