Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sen. Russ Feingold On Fighting Phantom Enemies

Editor's Note: Sen. Feingold, a brave American who believes in the Constitution, rightly asks the question of whether so-called "Islamic Facists" are a distraction from Al Qaeda, just as the war in Iraq is a distraction from Al Qaeda.

Remarks of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold
At the Arab American Institute’s 2006 Leadership Conference

September 12, 2006

I am truly honored to be here. The mission of AAI has never been more important than it is today, and I have been proud to work with you over the years.

I know many in this room, and in the wider Arab American community, are deeply concerned about the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, as I am.

Now that a ceasefire is in place we must offer support for the Lebanese people as they begin to rebuild their country, and we commit U.S. diplomatic efforts and resources toward achieving peace and stability in the region.

The U.S. government needs to devote greater attention and resources to this priority than it has in recent years. One of the most important elements of establishing peace is initiating reconstruction efforts throughout southern Lebanon immediately, and the U.S. government must be fully engaged in that effort.

During the conflict, I was pleased to work with Senator Durbin from Illinois to introduce legislation that would grant Temporary Protected Status, a form of humanitarian immigration relief, to Lebanese nationals in the U.S. The bill would allow Lebanese nationals in the United States to stay in this country legally for a period of up to a year.

This bill was only one small effort, though. If we are to contribute positively to a sustainable ceasefire and to setting the conditions within which Israel and Lebanon can become secure, as we must, a senior U.S. envoy must be deployed to the region. It is in the interest of all parties in the Middle East to find a solution to the latest violence, and to look for ways to create a lasting peace throughout the region.

I know that at yesterday’s conference events all of you, like other Americans across the country, honored the memory of those who lost their lives in the horrific attacks on our country on 9/11. As we remember those who died, we are reminded that the strength of this country is in its diversity. The victims of 9/11 had names like Vladimir, and Mario and Mohammed, and their names testify to the remarkable ethnic and national diversity that make this great country unique. Like places all across America, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes were filled with people with roots in Asia, Central and South America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

People from every corner of the world have become citizens of this nation, have come to love this country, and have been proud to call it home. As Americans, we are defined not by what we look like, or where our ancestors came from. We are bound together by what we believe in – in democracy, in justice and in freedom. That is what defines the country that we love, and the country that we must protect from the threat of terrorism.

And as we work to protect this nation, we must make it absolutely clear that we are fighting terrorists – not the religion those terrorists claim to represent. We must avoid using misleading and offensive terms that link Islam with those who subvert this great religion or who distort its teachings to justify terrorist activities. I call on the President to stop using the phrase “Islamic Fascists”, a label that doesn’t make any sense, and certainly doesn’t help our effort to fight terrorism. Fascist ideology doesn’t have anything to do with the way global terrorist networks think or operate, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world who practice the peaceful teachings of Islam.

When the President of the United States uses that phrase, he offends peaceful Muslims around the world, and he shows that he doesn’t understand the enemies that we are up against.

It’s obvious that the Administration made a deliberate decision to use this term. I believe that this is a serious mistake. It’s time for the President to repudiate this term and instruct people in his Administration to cease using it. What is so hard about referring to the enemy as Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its sympathizers?

Five years after 9/11, defeating that enemy must be our top priority. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our brave troops aren't fighting al Qaeda or other terrorist networks. They are in Iraq, a country that had no connection to the 9/11 attacks.

Since 9/11, terrorist networks that threaten this country have developed new capabilities and found new sources of support throughout the world. We have seen terrorist attacks in India, Morocco, Turkey, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Spain, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Instability in Somalia has provided a logical safe haven for Al Qaeda and threatens to destabilize the region, and resurgent Taliban forces are contributing to growing levels of instability in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, our poorly defined Iraq policy is undermining our ability to defeat the terrorist networks that attacked us on 9/11. To get the fight against terrorism back on track, we must redeploy our troops from Iraq. Ending our massive, open-ended military commitment to Iraq will allow Iraqis to take ownership of their own country, and allow the United States to refocus its resources on the threat posed by al Qaeda and other global terrorist networks.

As we fight terrorism, we also have to preserve the basic constitutional principles on which this country was founded. That means following the rule of law, with Congress and the President working together to protect our Constitution as we protect the American people. Tragically, rather than following that course, this Administration has compounded its mistakes in fighting terrorism by failing, time and again, to protect our rights and freedoms.

First, they rushed the USA Patriot Act through Congress after 9/11. That law included some commonsense provisions that I supported, such as more border guards and a longer statute of limitations for certain terrorist crimes.

But giving the government the power to obtain the business, library and medical records of completely law-abiding Americans through a secret court – that was something from a preexisting FBI wish list that was simply thrown into the bill.

Few people were willing to look closely at this bill at the time, unfortunately. There weren’t a lot of people inclined to oppose something called “the Patriot Act” just weeks after 9/11. Now, we have had close to five years to examine this Act, and more than 400 communities across America have said that changes should be made, along with eight state legislatures, and a number of conservative Republican members of Congress.

Unfortunately, during the reauthorization of the Patriot Act earlier this year, the White House refused to make changes that had broad bipartisan support and that addressed serious civil liberties concerns. But whether the White House likes it or not, this will continue to be an issue where both Democrats and Republicans have concerns, and we will continue to work together for changes to the law. I am sure of that.

As bad as parts of the Patriot Act are, the Administration’s illegal wiretapping program, which was publicly revealed last year, is an even more serious violation of the freedoms of our citizens. We now know that for years, the President has authorized his Administration to spy on Americans, on American soil, without getting the legally required permission of a court. When he did that, he broke the law.

Not only did the President break the law, he also actively misled Congress and the American people about his actions, and then, when the program was made public, about the legality of the NSA program. He has fundamentally violated the trust of the American people. I have introduced a resolution to censure the President for his actions and I continue to urge my colleagues, even as they consider legislation making the President’s actions legal, to address the President’s past and ongoing misconduct.

When Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, in 1978, it specifically prohibited the kind of warrantless surveillance that the President has approved. The laws of the United States, passed by Congress, must govern in our constitutional system.

The Administration and its supporters don’t have a legal leg to stand on. So what do they do when the press exposes the secret spying program? They go into attack mode, they say, “We’re trying to protect the American people. All these lawyers and legislators talking about the law are just trying to get in the way of defeating terrorists.”

That is absurd. I will not take second place to anyone in this country when it comes to a commitment to catching terrorists. The government should, and must, wiretap suspected terrorists, both in the United States and overseas. The FISA law passed nearly thirty years ago by a nearly unanimous vote allows such wiretapping. – and when the wiretapping is conducted in the United States, FISA requires the approval of a secret court. That approval is essential to ensure that the government does not abuse this important power. The President still hasn’t explained why he thinks he has to break that law to do what he wants to do.

None of the information I have received as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee justifies his actions.

Congress needs to reassert its authority in this area. It must demand answers from the President, hold him accountable for his actions, and change the law only when the executive branch has demonstrated that it is necessary to do so.

You may have been following recent efforts by Senator Specter to get a bill to legalize the NSA program, really to make FISA entirely optional, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. I think giving the President more power without knowing whether that power is needed is exactly the wrong approach to this issue. I have been fighting that approach, and I will proudly continue to do so.

Last week, we saw a lot in the news about another area where the administration overstepped its constitutional bounds: with its handling of detainees. I welcome the President’s announcement that he plans to prosecute some of those responsible for the horrific crimes of 9/11. But the President’s confirmation of the existence of secret CIA prisons and his announcement about the transfer of terrorist detainees to Guantanamo Bay should not be used as an excuse for Congress to rubber stamp the President’s draft legislation on this issue – legislation that has already been criticized by a number of Republicans and by military lawyers.

In crafting any new legislation dealing with detainees, Congress must remember what the Army Judge Advocate General told me at a recent hearing: that the United States should set an example for the world, and that we must carefully consider the effect of any legislation on the way our own soldiers will be treated. The Administration also must explain to the full intelligence committees all relevant aspects of the CIA program that the President described.

As we move forward in the fight against terrorism, we must bring terrorists to justice, and we must work together to preserve the basic principles on which this country is founded.

Of course, preserving those principles means, among other things, preventing discrimination based on religion or ethnicity. I was working on racial profiling issues before 9/11, when people spoke of the issue mostly in the context of African-Americans and Latino-Americans who had been profiled. But after 9/11, the issue took on a new context, and a new urgency.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the need to prevent racial profiling is just as urgent, because the fear of racial profiling is still a presence in the everyday lives of many Arab Americans.

Law enforcement officers across this country are dedicated to enforcing the law and to ensuring justice for every American, and the vast majority don’t participate in the practice of racial profiling. But it does happen, we all know that. I have introduced a bill to prohibit racial profiling, and I will continue working on this issue for as long as it takes to fix this insidious problem.

We must keep working to ensure that no one is judged by how they look or where they worship, whether that judgment is being made by a member of law enforcement, or by a stranger passing them on the street.

We must work against those kinds of judgments, because those moments erode people’s faith in this nation that we love. We cannot allow anything to undermine Americans’ faith in our country, which serves as a beacon of freedom to people around the world, and which has become home to people from around the world.

We have to protect that faith, just as we protect our freedoms, and we protect the American people from the threat of terrorism.


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