If only terrorists would be so accommodating as not to change cell phones, the new curbs on the Patriot Act being pushed by Democrats in Congress would not be so dangerous. But, unfortunately, even a book entitled Terrorism for Dummies would tell them to use multiple cell phones to plot their mayhem.
In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, President Clinton asked Congress for authority to order roving wiretaps, targeting the terror suspect rather than one specific phone. If he changed phones, the FBI could tap each new phone he used without getting a separate warrant. Congress unwisely and unaccountably refused. But when President Bush renewed the request, after 9-11, Congress included the authorization in the Patriot Act.
However, this provision and many other essential investigatory tools is subject to sunset at the end of the year. Unless affirmatively renewed by Congress, they will lapse.
Drug enforcement agents have long used roving wiretaps, but anti-terror investigators will not be able to use them if Congress doesn't extend the authority. Our anti-terror investigators will be back to the one phone-one warrant rule.
Former Bush Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, writing in an op-ed in Friday's Wall Street Journal notes that roving wiretaps "helped thwart a plot earlier this year to blow up synagogues in Riverdale, N.Y." Yet liberal Democrats are fighting the renewal of the roving wiretap authority as part of a broad offensive against the very Patriot Act provisions which have kept us safe (often by narrow margins) since 9-11.
Other liberal targets include the statute which allows terror investigators to apply for court orders to search business records in national security investigations. The Democrats want to limit this authority to instances in which investigators can prove that their target is an agent of a foreign power. Since terrorists are unlikely to register under FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act), one wonders how investigators are supposed to be able to prove that they are foreign agents before they can investigate them!
Even though investigators can search the business records only if they get the approval of the court, this safeguard does not impress the liberals. Ironically, the IRS can access these very same business records if they are connected with a tax investigation whether or not a foreign agent is involved. But terror investigators will have to face a more daunting hurdle.
Another sunsetting provision under attack is the so-called "lone wolf authority" which allows investigators to launch a probe even if they cannot prove, before they start, that the target is connected to a terrorist group. Again, the liberals would put the cart before the horse and demand proof before an inquiry could begin.
Other liberal targets include limiting the use of National Security Letters — in effect subpoenas — in terror investigations.
The fact is that there has not been a single instance of reported abuse of these investigative powers by counterterrorist agents. No records have even been turned over the other government agencies like the IRS or the DEA. No leaks have appeared in the media. No citizen's privacy has been compromised by publication of his secrets in the newspapers.
On the other hand, the list of terror attacks that have been prevented by using these authorities is extensive. Most recently, these tools helped stop Najibullah Zazi from loading backpacks with lethal explosives and detonating them on New York City subways.
Will Obama endorse these crippling amendments? Will Democrats such as Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer who come from endangered states like New York back them?
Heaven help the Democratic Party and President Obama if these debilitating amendments pass or if the authority to use this statute lapses and another terrorist attack takes place. Heaven help the victims, too.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann