No room for political opportunism in ongoing national security debate

Inside the Beltway, political opportunism is too often the norm. Historically, however, members of Congress have checked their political agendas at the door when addressing sensitive national security matters.

Protecting the nation and its citizens from enemy attack was something on which most politicians could agree. Sadly it seems, only four and a half years after Sept. 11, that this is no longer the case.

The problem has become apparent to me as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. While some of my colleagues talk about oversight, they seem less interested in fixing the intelligence community’s problems than in the political benefit to be achieved by exploiting them.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many in the minority would prefer to serve on “the Committee Against Everything the Bush Administration Does.” Nothing short of that will satisfy them. Unfortunately, political stunts like shutting down the Senate, as we saw in November, only serve to waste time from the important issues at hand.

When the criminal leaking of the existence of the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program first broke in The New York Times and other media outlets, my colleagues, most with no actual knowledge of the program’s details, declared that the president’s actions were clearly unconstitutional and illegal. It was especially disappointing to see that even minority members who had been repeatedly briefed on the program, and had assented to its continuation, voiced heretofore unspoken and vague concerns and called for congressional investigations. Some even demanded the impeachment of the commander in chief — apparently for the high crime and misdemeanor of protecting the nation by collecting intelligence against a devious and vicious enemy.

Soon after the leak, however, polls revealed that up to two-thirds of the American people supported the president’s terrorist surveillance program. As a result, many members of Congress have changed their tune. They no longer believe that the commander in chief’s actions were unconstitutional. They now want to work with the administration to update the law to include this sensitive and extremely important surveillance program.

This is not oversight. It is political opportunism at its worst. Not surprisingly, it has consequences.

There are real threats to our national security that the administration must confront and that require oversight by the Intelligence Committee and all members of Congress. The threat of terrorism is the most immediate concern.

Thankfully, since Sept. 11, we have not suffered another major attack on our soil. We should not, however, be lulled into a false sense of security. The terrorists are a patient and determined enemy. They are continually probing our defenses and adjusting their tactics in an attempt to launch a successful mass-casualty attack.

Additionally, Iran and North Korea both pose significant threats. Both nations are controlled by unpredictable leaders who have attempted to circumvent United Nations’ inspections of their nuclear programs. The intelligence community assesses that North Korea already has nuclear weapons and that Iran, if it continues on its current path, will likely have the capability to produce nuclear weapons within the next decade. Both Iran and North Korea are continuing work on numerous weapons programs, including long-range ballistic missiles and advanced conventional weapons systems.

At the same time, communist China poses another threat that we must closely monitor. China has quietly emerged as a regional power both economically and militarily. China’s aggressive statements regarding Taiwan, its dramatic investment in offensive military capabilities and its questionable counterproliferation record are of concern.

Additionally, China maintains a determined espionage effort within the United States that is aimed at stealing our most sensitive weapons secrets.

Finally, there are threats growing in our own hemisphere. Latin America presents a number of challenges, including a trend toward socialist, anti-American governments like the Chavez regime in Venezuela.

These issues and many others should be addressed in a bipartisan manner. The committee is currently focused on two major issues beyond our regular oversight: completing the phase two report and addressing concerns related to the terrorist surveillance program.

There will be policy differences and much debate. That is what makes our republic great. These debates about national security, however, should be serious and rational, devoid of stunts and shrill, partisan attacks on the motives of others.

It is the constitutional duty of those in the executive branch to make the tough decisions necessary to prosecute and win wars. That is not the case for those of us in the legislative branch, who have the luxury of criticizing actions after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

I urge my colleagues to check political opportunism at the door when they are dealing with national security issues. The stakes for the American people are too high.

Roberts is the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.