Remarks by the Vice President to the Heritage Foundation
The Heritage Foundation
“I just don't have that luxury … nor do the people that work with me to protect America, because we have not forgotten the lessons of September 11th. And I expect that the American people expect Congress to give us the tools necessary to protect them.”
10:58 A.M. EST
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you all very much. Thank you. Well, a welcome like that, it's almost enough to make me want to run for office again. (Laughter.) Almost, almost. (Applause.) But I appreciate very much the kind words from my own -- old friend, Ed Feulner, and I want to thank Ed and the entire staff at Heritage for hosting me today. Heritage, of course, is one of the great centers of scholarship, policy insight, and creativity in our nation's capital. It's certainly been a source of information and good advice for me over the years in my various public roles, from White House Chief of Staff, to Congressman, to Secretary of Defense, and now as Vice President.
Let me also thank all our distinguished guests for being here today. To get to hear remarks by Ed Feulner and then by me seems like as much charisma as anybody can handle in one day. (Laughter.) How was that? (Laughter.)
I hold an office that has only one constitutional duty –- presiding over the Senate and casting tie-breaking votes. Before the Constitution was written, some, including Benjamin Franklin, believed that the vice presidency was entirely unnecessary. He said that if the office were to be created, anyone who served as Vice President should be addressed as "Your Superfluous Excellency." (Laughter.) That's better than some of the things I've been called. (Laughter.)
It's a great privilege to serve the people of the nation in a position first occupied by John Adams. We've now begun our final year in office, with much to do before January 20th of 2009. Until that day comes, we're going to work hard, to keep our focus on the people's business, and finish strong. And when the last chapter is written, it'll be said that we became a stronger, safer country because George W. Bush was President of the United States. (Applause.)
Next Monday night the President will report to the House and the Senate on the State of the Union, and lay out a program for security and prosperity in the New Year and well beyond. He'll be speaking to a Congress that just returned after a long break, and has a good deal of work ahead of it. The agenda includes, of course, the President's economic growth package –- a plan to stimulate job creation with new incentives for entrepreneurship, and direct, rapid income tax relief for the American people.
There's another piece of business that requires swift action by the Congress. On the first of February, a recent temporary fix to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is set to expire. Today I'd like to explain why it is so urgent that Congress update the FISA law effective immediately and permanently.
As with any legislative matter, there will be points of agreement and points of disagreement. I prefer to begin with some points of fact. The United States of America has not experienced a catastrophic attack since the morning of September 11th, 2001. In the days following 9/11, we had to assume that another attack was imminent. We proceeded on that basis, mobilizing against the danger, and using every legitimate tool at our command to protect the American people against another attack.
It is a fact, as well, that the danger to our country remains very real, and that the terrorists are still determined to hit us. They are fanatical in their hatred. They likely have operatives inside the United States. And they have tried many times to cause more violence and death in this country.
Nobody can guarantee that we won't be hit again. Our intelligence agencies have made clear that we're in a heightened threat environment, with a "persistent and evolving" terrorist adversary. And so the relative safety of the six years and four months since 9/11 is not an accident. It's an achievement. And the achievement is the product of some very hard work by Americans in intelligence, in law enforcement, and the military –- and some wise decisions by the President of the United States.
Under President Bush's leadership, after September 11th, the government made some difficult choices. One of these was to stop treating terrorist attacks as criminal matters –- where you find out what happened, arrest the bad guys, put them in jail, and move on. The world changed when a coordinated attack ended the lives of 3,000 Americans and turned 16 acres of New York City to ashes. As the President has made clear many times, we are dealing with a strategic threat to the United States. We are at war with an enemy that wants to cause mass death inside the United States. And we must act systematically and decisively until this enemy is destroyed.
The terrorists waging war against this country don't fight according to the rules of warfare, or international law, or moral standards, or basic humanity. And we have to be clear-eyed about the character and objective of these adversaries. They have a strategic goal to recreate the old seventh-century caliphate –- an empire stretching from Europe through the Middle East, all the way around to Southeast Asia. They want to arm themselves with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons –- and they would not hesitate to use such weapons. Their tactics, of course, are familiar to all the world: hijackings like those of 9/11, suicide attacks, car bombs, beheadings, messages of violence and hatred on the Internet. Their method is plain; is to plan in secret, and to proceed by stealth, so that we won't know what they're up to until a moment of sudden, catastrophic violence.
To wage this fight we have to marshal our resources to go after the terrorists, to shut down their training camps, to take down their networks, deny them sanctuary, disrupt their funding sources, and bring them to justice. We've taken necessary steps, as well, to go after the sponsors of terror, and to confront those who might provide these killers with more deadly capabilities. And because some of the early battlefields of the war have been right here in the United States, we have taken vital actions to defend the homeland against future attacks.
Among the most effective weapons against terrorism is good intelligence –- information that helps us figure out the movements of the enemy, the extent of their operation, the location of their cells, the plans that they're making, the methods they use, and the targets that they want to strike. Information of this kind is also the very hardest to obtain. But it's worth the effort in terms of the plots that are averted and the lives that are saved.
The best source of that information is, of course, the terrorists themselves. So our government has taken careful but urgent steps to monitor the communications of enemies at large, and to get information out of the ones that we've captured. The military has interrogated terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. In addition, a small number of terrorists, high-value targets held overseas, have gone through a tougher interrogation program run by the CIA. These include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11.
The procedures of the CIA program are designed to be safe. They are in full compliance with the nation's laws and treaty obligations. They've been carefully reviewed by the Department of Justice, and they are very carefully monitored. The program is run by highly trained professionals who understand their obligations under the law. And the program has uncovered a wealth of information that has foiled attacks against the United States; information that has saved countless, innocent lives.
We've also managed to prevent attacks and save lives by monitoring terrorist-related communications. One of the vehicles for doing so is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But that law was written three decades ago, and in recent years it became clear that FISA was becoming dangerously out of date.
The basic problem was this. When FISA was passed 30 years ago, many domestic phone calls were transmitted by wire, and most international phone calls went by radio or satellite. Today, it's the opposite. A lot of international communications are actually routed through computers and cables inside the United States. This would mean, under the original language of FISA, that the U.S. sometimes could not monitor, without a finding of probable cause and a court order, one foreign citizen abroad making a telephone call to another foreign citizen abroad about terrorism, because of changes in technology.
Congress never intended to grant privacy rights to enemies overseas, yet because of modern technology, the law began to have that very effect. As a consequence, much information that was important to national security simply went uncollected. The intelligence director, Admiral Mike McConnell, alerted us to the intelligence gap, and we asked Congress to fix the law.
To its credit, Congress responded by passing the Protect America Act. The legislation made it explicit that traditional FISA protections do not extend to persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States. With President Bush's signature, this new law ensured that we could quickly close the intelligence gap. And as a result, the intelligence community has been able to do a much better job safeguarding the American people.
The unfortunate aspect of the Protect America Act is a sunset provision, which makes the law expire on the first of February –- just 10 days from now. That leaves Congress only nine days in which to act to keep the intelligence gap closed. And with the day of reckoning so close at hand, we're reminding Congress that they must act now to modernize FISA.
First, our administration feels strongly that an updated FISA law should be made permanent, not merely extended again with another sunset provision. We can always revisit a law that's on the books –- that's part of the job of the elected branches of government. But there is no sound reason to pass critical legislation like the Protect American Act and slap an expiration date on it. Fighting the war on terror is a long-term enterprise that requires long-term, institutional changes. The challenge to the country has not expired over the last six months. It won't expire any time soon –- and we should not write laws that pretend otherwise.
Second, the law should uphold an important principle: that those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits. We're asking Congress to update FISA and especially to extend this protection to communications providers alleged to have given such assistance any time after September 11th, 2001. This is an important consideration, because some providers are facing dozens of lawsuits right now. Why? Because they are believed to have aided the U.S. government in the effort to intercept international communications of al Qaeda-related individuals.
We're dealing here with matters of the utmost sensitivity. It's not even proper to confirm whether any given company provided assistance. But we can speak in general terms. The fact is, the intelligence community doesn't have the facilities to carry out the kind of international surveillance needed to defend this country since 9/11. In some situations there is no alternative to seeking assistance from the private sector. This is entirely appropriate. Indeed, the Protect America Act and other laws allow directives to be issued to private parties for intelligence-gathering purposes.
As Attorney General Mukasey has said, "Even if you believe the lawsuits will ultimately be dismissed, as we do, the prospect of having to defend against these massive claims is an enormous burden; the companies also may suffer significant business and reputational harm" from allegations they cannot even respond to publicly. One might even suppose that without liability protection for past activities to aid the government, the private sector might be extremely reluctant to comply with future requests from the government –- even though the requests are necessary to protect American lives. That risk is unacceptable to the President. It should be unacceptable to the United States Congress. Liability protection, retroactive to 9/11, is the right thing to do. It's the right way to help us prevent another 9/11 down the road.
Actions by Congress sometimes have unexpected consequences. But a failure to enact a permanent FISA update with liability protections would have predictable and serious consequences. Our ability to monitor al Qaeda terrorists will begin to degrade –- and that, we simply cannot tolerate. So I'm confident that my colleagues on Capitol Hill will join together to make sure this nation has every tool it needs to fight and to win the war on terror.
Not long ago, President Bush said that he "knew full well that if we were successful protecting the country that the lessons of September 11th would become dimmer and dimmer in some people's minds." Then he said, quote, "I just don't have that luxury … nor do the people that work with me to protect America, because we have not forgotten the lessons of September 11th. And I expect that the American people expect Congress to give us the tools necessary to protect them." End quote.
Most of us understand the war is real, that we need to stay on the offensive, and that we have to proceed on many fronts at the same time. And if any of us ever lacks for inspiration, we need only look to the men and women doing the toughest work of all, 6,000 or more miles from home. Virtually every day I am briefed on the progress that our troops are making in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there's never a day that I'm not very, very proud of them.
It's impossible to know the men and women of our military and be cynical about America. The freedoms we enjoy, the rights we exercise, all the privileges of living in this country –- none of these must ever be taken for granted. We have them because there have always been Americans who stand up for them, who defend them, and when necessary, fight for them. And it's the duty of all of us to pass along to the next generation the free, strong, and secure nation that was passed along to us.
This cause is bigger than the quarrels of party and the agendas of politicians. And if we in Washington, all of us, can only see our way clear to work together, then the outcome should not be in doubt. We will do our part to keep this nation safe. We will press on despite any difficulty. And we will prevail.
Thank you very much.
END 11:15 A.M. EST