Federal agents have done something very good. They’ve thwarted three terrorist bombing plots in one week.
Yet the tools used to thwart plots that might have killed thousands may be taken away by Congress. The arrests came just as congressional committees are debating whether to renew the Patriot Act, which expanded America’s ability to detect and deter domestic terrorism.
It’s impossible to overstate the lives evidently saved by the FBI’s recent arrests in New York City, Dallas, and Springfield, Ill. The events re-affirmed the reality of danger from radical Islamic jihadists just as some Americans were de-emphasizing them.
Najibullah Zazi, of Afghanistan, reportedly targeted “major transportation centers” in New York City. The possible death count could have been staggering. Penn Station handles about 600,000 passengers each day. Grand Central Terminal handles about 280,000. The New York subway system carries 5.2-million daily (190,000 at Times Square alone).
Jordanian national Hosam Maher Husein Smadi is accused of trying to detonate a car bomb beneath Dallas’ 60-story Fountain Place office tower, where thousands work each day. The bomb was fake because the FBI made it so.
American-born Michael C. Finton, aka Talib Islam, is accused of targeting the Springfield, Ill. Courthouse, where over 100 people work. His van, too, was filled with fake explosives he thought to be real.
Was Patriot Act-authorized surveillance the key to thwarting the plots? The FBI won’t say in the midst of its ongoing investigation. But just as news of Zazi’s arrest broke, an FBI spokesman testifying before Congress may have dropped a hint.
“Because the authorities used to investigate that case or that may have been used to investigate that case are authorities before the FISA Court,” he said, “I am not at liberty to discuss them in an open hearing here today.”
The statement indicates that the case probably involved the special court that approves monitoring under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including Patriot Act issues. It will be no surprise if we learn that the Patriot Act’s expansion of surveillance enabled arrests that saved a great many lives.
The events came just as lawmakers considered weakening that capability. The weekend before new plots were disclosed, The New York Times reported: “As Congress prepares to consider extending crucial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, civil liberties groups and some Democratic lawmakers are gearing up to press for sweeping changes to surveillance laws.”
TIME magazine had just reported, “Several liberal Senate Democrats such as Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, along with Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have proposed a bill known as the Justice Act, which would curb many of the sweeping powers of the Patriot Act.” A somewhat similar version is proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The day before the vehicle bomb arrests, these senators were surprised that an Obama administration witness (Assistant Attorney General David Kris) did not warm up to their bills. Likely aware of the imminent arrests, the Washington Post reported that he instead “sounded very much like his predecessors in the Bush administration. . . . The performance must have been disheartening for Democrats, because Kris was supposed to be one of the good guys.”
The fresh reminders that terrorism is a real and present homeland threat should have a major ripple effect. It will test the balance between freedom and security; the Patriot Act expires at the end of this year unless renewed (which it should be). It will impact whether more troops will be sent to Afghanistan, where terrorists are still trained. It will impact President Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo Bay’s prison where terrorists are detained. It will impact calls for greater security at transportation centers and other places.
Thanks to the diligence of those who uncovered these plots, we’ve been given a reminder that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — fortunately a less horrid reminder than 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, but a major reminder nonetheless.
Ernest Istook served 14 years as a congressman and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
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