- - Wednesday, January 1, 2014


Since Sept. 11, 2012, Americans have sought answers to what happened at our consulate in Benghazi. As the Obama administration’s narrative continues to shift, witnesses have faced retaliation for cooperating with investigators, and 2016 presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton famously demanded to know “what difference” our response to Benghazi makes. As Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes rightly observed, Benghazi is “an important story because it involves 200 years of our military ethos, which is: if we ask you to go out in the middle of the night and risk your life for America, we promise that we will backstop you … . In Benghazi, we did not do that.”

While many in Congress deserve credit for attempting to uphold the tradition Mr. Ailes cites, others dishonor it by failing to backstop intelligence professionals who answered America’s call in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Utilizing the Patriot Act and other bipartisan statutory tools approved and reauthorized by Congress, the U.S. intelligence community has pre-empted additional large-scale attacks on U.S. soil and has taken the fight to a persistent and determined enemy. Once insuperable, “the wall” separating intelligence and law enforcement now permits relevant, timely and limited information-sharing critical to our national security. In response to diffuse and shifting threats, the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities have kept faith with the 9/11 Commission’s recognition that “[t]he choice between liberty and security is a false one, as nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties than the success of a terrorist attack on American soil.” For this, Americans should be proud — and grateful.

Yet in the months following Edward Snowden’s unprecedented breach of U.S. intelligence programs, members of the administration and Congress who once lauded intelligence professionals for rising to America’s defense have not risen to theirs. Through active criticism or passive indifference, they have emboldened an assault on U.S. intelligence not seen since the Church and Pike committees. Outstanding public servants such NSA Director General Keith Alexander have come under coordinated political attack for serving our country with courage and integrity.

After early expressions of confidence, administration support for the intelligence agencies has gone cold. Some have accused the intelligence community of willful violation of the law and condemned programs briefed to congressional intelligence committees and authorized by the FISA Court as “excessive and un-American.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein has sought to curtail monitoring of foreign governments that conduct hostile surveillance of U.S. targets and whose diplomatic, military or economic interests diverge from our own. In demanding civilian leadership at NSA, members of Congress ignore the nature of signals intelligence and defame the uniform by suggesting those who wear it cannot be trusted to honor the Constitution they are sworn to defend.

House and Senate Intelligence committees have kept largely mute as President Obama hand-picked a five person Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies mostly made up of members who lack any substantive intelligence experience. Panelists include former Obama White House regulatory czar and Center for American Progress senior fellow Cass Sunstein, former Obama economic adviser and Clinton privacy official Peter Swire, and Geoffrey R. Stone, a member of the National Advisory Council of the ACLU. No panel member served in any branch of the U.S. military or the NSA or possesses substantive expertise in signals intelligence, encryption or military communications technologies. The review group recently delivered 46 hastily prepared recommendations in a 300-plus page report as Congress left for its winter break. While the recommendations were warmly received by the ACLU and Brennan Center, former NSA inspector general Joel F. Brenner observed that the “the panel’s recommendations would put us back before 9/11 again.”

Among its startling proposals, the panel recommends imposing a “Front Page Rule” that would subject any U.S. intelligence operation to a “public support” test. The intelligence community is properly insulated from shifting political trends. If intelligence operations are subordinated to naked political calculations, the intelligence community will forfeit its cherished nonpolitical standing and the public confidence that comes with it. It will no longer operate in the national interest, but hew to the political assessments of whichever party is in power. This would transform the intelligence community into another political arm of an already hyperpoliticized federal establishment. Will Congress permit this to happen on its watch?

Judge William H. Pauley III’s recent, well-reasoned decision to dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuit in the Southern District of New York ensures that legal debate over illegally disclosed programs will continue for some time. In the coming session, Congress will take up the task of examining and revisiting U.S. intelligence operations. When doing so, Congress should attach as much significance to the president’s review group as its panelists warrant.

Most importantly, the administration and Congress should commit themselves to a common New Year’s resolution: intelligence-reform debate must take place in a spirit of respect and gratitude toward the professionals who met the call and risked so much for America. Like those brave Americans whose call for help went unanswered in Benghazi, patriots in the intelligence community are at risk of being sacrificed to political expediency. The consequences of inaction in Benghazi continue to be felt. The costs of passivity now would be catastrophic for years to come. The intelligence community has performed admirably and demands our continued support. It is time to honor our promise to them and to our country by providing it.

Robert N. Tracci served as special assistant United States Attorney and deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice.

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