Congress knows terrorists will keep trying to hurt us. It must reauthorize NSA metadata program, now

The lights are going out on one of America’s counterterrorism programs.  Intelligence officers and police may be in the dark about terrorists’ phone contacts in the U.S., even as they plot to strike us at home.

The Islamic State threatened in April, “We will burn America.”  Al Qaeda, its regional affiliates, and other Sunni terror groups conspire to do the same.

Iran and its Shi’a terror proxies threaten us, too.  Tehran sought to detonate a car bomb outside a crowded Washington, DC restaurant in 2011.

Authorities thwarted 68 terror plots in the U.S. since 9/11, while attacks in Little Rock, Fort Hood and Boston killed 18 and wounded nearly 300.  Attempted attacks over Detroit, in Times Square and recently near Fort Worth failed at the last moment.

No abuses of this heavily regulated program, which is subject to extra congressional and judicial oversight, have been reported. And the idea of busy senior officials pawing through average Americans’ phone bills, in search of who knows what, is frankly silly.

It’s surprising more attacks do not succeeded. America is difficult to protect from religiously motivated terrorists, for reasons we would not change even if we could.

We welcome immigrants and visitors, and our population is diverse. The First Amendment protects any religious belief, and almost all private speech and associations.  We are reluctant to ask police informants to report on congregations or sermons.

So how do we lawfully identify those few who hide among us and seek mass murder? The National Security Agency’s telephone metadata program is one good method.

If NSA discovers, through a database of U.S. phone records accessible by a handful of senior officials, a known terrorist overseas calling the U.S., it notifies the Justice Department.

DOJ lawyers then begin a laborious process of determining whether probable cause exists that Americans receiving those calls are involved in terrorism. Justice’s rigorous insistence upon solid proof of any American’s involvement in terrorism may exasperate intelligence officers.  But those lawyers do their job and protect citizens’ rights.

Once satisfied, DOJ applies to judges for permission to monitor these communications.  Only if the court grants an order, will the FBI listen in.  Even then, the Bureau removes private information from those conversations, before its agents disseminate an intelligence summary to counterterrorism officials.

The NSA metadata program was not conceived in a vacuum.  We learned after 9/11 that Al Qaeda members overseas, known to us at the time, had placed calls to the hijackers here in U.S.  Amid the rubble and wreckage of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93, a grim determination was made to not miss such clues ever again.

These fears were not idle. Many of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan discovered an American number in a captured al-Qaeda or Taliban cell phone.  The experience chills the blood.

It’s rare that George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree on anything, but on the necessity of the NSA metadata program, they do.

Serious people do disagree over the legality of the NSA metadata program. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, for example, recently overruled a distinguished district court judge to hold that the program exceeded the statutory authority of the Patriot Act.

But much criticism of the metadata program is the product of fevered imaginations. Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others on the far right and far left, promulgate an untruth:  that NSA listens to Americans’ conversations without a warrant.  That belief is as wrong as it is now widely held.

No abuses of this heavily regulated program, which is subject to extra congressional and judicial oversight, have been reported. And the idea of busy senior officials pawing through average Americans’ phone bills, in search of who knows what, is frankly silly.

Yet this important counterterror tool may be placed on the shelf.

Our intelligence community was rightly criticized for failing to “connect the dots” before 9/11.  Yet the recent trend is to take available dots away.

There is a reason that the defector Edward Snowden is a prized agent of hostile foreign intelligence services. Snowden’s leaks, and false narratives they seem to support and undermine America’s signals intelligence program, a key element of our national defense since World War Two.

Terrorists will keep trying to hurt us. There is a competition between terror groups to hit our homeland, as the bragging rights for such a massacre would be a boon to their fundraising and recruiting.  Whoever wins that contest, we lose.

Based on their records and rhetoric, ISIS will focus on killing police and military personnel (or their families), or perhaps attack churches and synagogues, while Al Qaeda and its affiliates fixate on mass-casualty attacks against planes and trains.

It is unfortunate, and may prove tragic, that those who protect us may now be denied basic knowledge about whom these terrorists are talking to inside our country.

Congress must reauthorize a broad NSA metadata program, now.  If it does not, it will own a share of responsibility for the next terror attack informed leaders know is coming.