Once again, members of Congress are putting our lives at risk by playing games with the USA Patriot Act.
Because of opposition of Democrats and some Republicans, crucial components of the act are set to expire on May 27 after Congress agreed to a temporary extension.
The provisions deal with roving wiretaps, “lone wolf” terrorism suspects, and the government’s ability to seize “any tangible thing” such as records.
Roving wiretaps simply allow a judge to authorize electronic surveillance of a terrorist suspect regardless of what phone he uses.
Prior to passage of the law, the FBI had to return to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for new authorization each time a terrorist changed phones. While the FBI applied for new authorization, a terrorist could have changed phones again and blown up an airplane in mid-flight.
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can wiretap a suspect as he changes from his land line to a cell phone or to a pay phone.
Incredibly, the FBI already has that authority in cases targeting drug traffickers, spies, and Mafia figures. So why would anyone question giving the exact same authority to the FBI when it goes after terrorists?
Under the Patriot Act, a judge has to approve each application to wiretap a terrorist suspect, so there is no question about the FBI infringing on civil liberties. It’s a question of making it at least as easy for the FBI to do its job as it is for terrorists to do theirs.
The provision allowing seizure of any item means the FBI can quickly obtain records by going to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court rather than seeking a grand jury subpoena.
The records could be FedEx shipping information or records of purchases of material that could be used for bombs or weapons of mass destruction. If a terrorist is about to release a dirty bomb or deadly anthrax, a delay to obtain a subpoena could mean the loss of thousands of lives.
Librarians have whipped themselves into hysteria about the possibility that the FBI might want to use this provision to obtain library records to find out if innocent grandmothers are reading “Tom Sawyer.” Behind this misconception is an assumption that FBI agents have nothing better to do than to snoop into people’s reading habits.
The “lone wolf” provision requires the government to convince a FISA court judge that a foreign suspect targeted for surveillance is planning or engaged in terrorist activity.
Prior to the Patriot Act, the FBI had to essentially know that a suspect was connected to a terrorist group before it could find out if he was connected to such a group. If the suspect was a lone wolf with no connection to known terrorists, the FBI’s hands were tied when it came to immediate electronic surveillance. Yet a lone wolf can kill just as many Americans as the 9/11 hijackers.
|Sen. Rand Paul
In announcing his opposition to extending the Patriot Act provisions, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., denounced the law as an infringement of civil liberties.
“Now we have essentially government agents, akin to soldiers, writing warrants; it’s ripe for abuse,” said Paul.
In fact, since passage of the act just after the 9/11 attacks, no abuse has been found. Indeed, since the days when J. Edgar Hoover ordered illegal wiretaps and improper surveillance, the FBI as an organization has not engaged in illegal conduct.
“Since 9/11, the bureau has been transformed into a prevention arm,” Fran Townsend, President Bush’s chief of counterterrorism, tells me.
“And part of that transformation meant giving it tools like the Patriot Act without which they will be less successful. So I hope that members of Congress will take this extension of the act to educate themselves on just how important it is and how much oversight is built into the act,” Townsend adds.
Thus, the biggest myth in the war on terror is that the Patriot Act infringes on civil liberties. If the FBI cannot be trusted to wiretap within the framework of the law, why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons and use deadly force?
Whose rights were being violated more, those whose phones were tapped by court order or those who died in the September 11 attacks?
Congress should permanently extend the provisions of the Patriot Act, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has advocated in a bill he co-sponsored.
If the FBI ever does abuse its authority, the appropriate remedy would be to prosecute those responsible and institute more oversight. Making it more difficult for the FBI to wiretap and obtain records allows terrorists to avoid detection and kill again.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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