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Opinion: The US needs to make sure Hamas isn’t a threat to the homeland


Opinion by Carrie Cordero

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Carrie Cordero, a CNN legal and national security analyst, is the Robert M. Gates senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security and senior associate general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

The Hamas attack on Israeli citizens is tragic. The assault on civilians was grotesque and uncivilized. I mourn the dead, open my heart to their families and friends, and grieve for Israel as a Jewish homeland that has never been able to know lasting peace.

As a national security professional, however, including having served as a post-9/11-era counterterrorism and intelligence attorney and US Justice Department staffer, the attack’s successful execution by Hamas is angering. It is angering because it is not at all shocking.

The threat posed by Hamas is well-known and has been for many years, to both Israeli and US national security communities. Its tactics and objectives were similarly understood.

Hamas’ mission is, by definition, to end Israel, not to seek to establish a self-governed Palestinian state that peacefully coexists alongside the Jewish state. Like Americans before 9/11, Israelis should have been better protected by their government. Their confidence in their elected leaders, intelligence and security services has likely been deeply shaken.

Last year, I participated in a quick but highly informative professional study trip to Israel. We were briefed on the many tunnels Hamas was known by Israeli authorities to have dug into Israel from the Gaza border. In these tunnels, the US-designated terror organization has been establishing pathways for coordination and stockpiling missiles that it periodically uses, particularly against Israeli civilian targets. They are, in large part, located under population centers, while Hamas enmeshes other activities into places such as schools and hospitals. We also descended deep into what had been a Hezbollah tunnel on the northern border until its discovery by Israeli officials.

We were additionally briefed on the efficacy and importance of the Iron Dome interception system that destroys missiles in air before they can reach their intended targets. But the attacks that began on Saturday further demonstrated that even a highly competent weapons system is not fail-safe. The sheer volume of rockets challenged the effectiveness of the Iron Dome. And, even when effective, the Iron Dome cannot mitigate the terror that citizens experience when living under siege.

The United States long ago committed to providing Israel military, intelligence, advisory and other support. Doing so is in America’s strategic interest because Israel is the closest US ally in the Middle East. Israel is the region’s only democracy. Though the United States can find areas of economic and diplomatic common ground with regional autocrats, there is no parallel to the partnerships possible with countries bound together by a commitment to democratic governance.

In addition, American lives are at stake. As of this writing, the State Department has confirmed that at least 11 Americans have been killed as a result of the Hamas attack and others may be held hostage.

This moment of crisis, however, shows that more support will be needed. Accordingly, here are three items that Congress should promptly take up.

First, the House of Representatives needs to elect a new speaker immediately. Regardless of the arguable authority of the speaker pro tempore, the clarity provided by an elected speaker is what is needed now. In the absence of a speaker, any action taken by Congress will be subject to allegations of illegitimacy and even potentially litigation.

When one of America’s closest allies is at war, it is critical that actions taken by Congress have the full force of that body’s credibility and authority.

Congress will likely want to take up legislation relevant to enhanced aid to Israel. While the administration will be able to send some military support relying on executive authorities alone, legislators on both sides of the aisle should want to preserve congressional prerogatives to authorize substantial new aid packages. At the moment, even a resolution of support from the House can’t be voted on.

Congress also needs to attend to the urgent work of carrying out its budget authorities so that the US government as a whole, and in particular the national security components of government, are not threatened with another shutdown in just over a month.

A portion of the national security workforce could potentially be furloughed in a shutdown, or at the very least, not compensated for their long hours, putting their families at risk as a result of their public service. Moreover, the environment of a shutdown hurts morale throughout the workforce, the effects of which linger long past the eventual renewal of budget authorities.

Second, Congress should renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Without congressional action, this provision will expire at the end of the year. Section 702 enables the intelligence community to target for surveillance non-US persons reasonably believed to be outside the United States for foreign intelligence purposes.

It is a critical authority because it provides a legal framework to collect intelligence against targets who use US electronic communications networks and platforms.

The Biden administration has been articulating publicly for months how Section 702 provides critical foreign intelligence information across a range of 21st century threats, including Chinese intelligence activities, intelligence relevant to Russia’s war on Ukraine, global cybersecurity threats and fentanyl trafficking, to name a few. But it is worth emphasizing that the catalyst for the section’s original enactment was counterterrorism, and it has been an essential counterterrorism tool for 15 years.

Hamas, Hezbollah and their state-sponsor, Iran, are wholly appropriate foreign intelligence targets, and Section 702 authority should not be degraded while threats from these actors have escalated to the degree of starting a new war in the Middle East.

Given the apparent intelligence failure that enabled Hamas to plan and execute the October 7 attack successfully without detection and disruption, US authorities should focus on expanding their collection to better protect Americans in Israel and around the world, and support Israel’s intelligence efforts related to the war.

Third, the FBI and the intelligence community should reassess their intelligence collection posture as it relates to the interconnected web of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist entities abroad to determine if Hamas has agents or surrogates in the US that were overlooked in the lead-up to Hamas’ surprise attack on Saturday. While Israeli security services have been regarded as best positioned to uncover plots in their own neighborhood, there may be more that can be done among US and counterterrorism information-sharing international partners.

In addition, US intelligence elements have an obligation to ensure that Americans are not at risk from Hamas actors here at home, in Israel or elsewhere. These obligations extend to Americans abroad, and the fact that Americans are among the hostages in Gaza only underscores the responsibilities that US authorities have in the current crisis.

The congressional intelligence committees should conduct robust oversight to ensure that intelligence authorities are being maximized to protect Americans in connection with the threats to their safety and security posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and other parts of the Iran-sponsored terrorism network.

There are now two ongoing wars for democracy on the planet, in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. The US has an important role to play to support both. Its leaders need to recognize they, too, have responsibilities to act in the wake of the environment in which they have chosen to serve, and act quickly.

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