In large part because of the enactment of the USA Patriot Act, we have not had a successful terrorist attack since 9/11. But with key provisions of the act set to expire, Democrats are seeking to weaken the law under the guise of protecting civil liberties.
The Patriot Act removed the wall — real and imagined — between criminal investigations and intelligence gathering so that leads could be shared between agencies and within them. Before the law was passed, an FBI agent following intelligence leads could not share his knowledge with other agents working the same case on the same squad if those agents were pursuing a criminal case.
The Patriot Act allowed the FBI to wiretap a terrorist regardless of what phone he used. Incredibly, before passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI could employ what are known as roving wiretaps in organized crime or drug trafficking cases, but it could not use them in terrorism cases.
Before passage of the Patriot Act, if a terrorist switched from a home phone to a disposable cell phone or a pay phone, the FBI would have to reapply for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order, a process that took weeks. In the meantime, the terrorist likely would have changed phones.
Since each roving wiretap has to be approved by a judge, there is no more question of infringing on civil liberties than when a judge approves a search of the house of a suspected child molester. It is a question of making it at least as easy for the FBI to do its job as it is for a terrorist to do his.
Finally, using so-called national security letters, the Patriot Act allowed the FBI to quickly obtain records of calls, emails, and searches on the web in international terrorism and espionage investigations. The FBI already had similar authority, through what are called administrative subpoenas, to obtain records in criminal investigations involving narcotics trafficking, health care fraud, and child abuse.
Like grand jury subpoenas, which are normally issued at the direction of a prosecutor, national security letters require no judicial review, but they can be issued without any delay.
In its effort to bring about repeal of key provisions of the Patriot Act, the American Civil Liberties Union has claimed that since the FBI does not have to inform the target of a national security letter that his records may be obtained, the bureau is using “sneak and peek” tactics in libraries to probe the reading habits of sinless grandmothers. But the FBI has always had authority, with a judge’s approval, to conduct a search without telling a suspect until later in an investigation. If the FBI were trying to stop a terrorist bombing and needed to search the computer of a suspect in order to round up the plotters without tipping them off, would anyone want the FBI to inform the suspect that his computer was about to be searched?
Before the Patriot Act and other changes implemented since 9/11, “A crime practically had to be committed before you could investigate,” Weldon Kennedy, a former FBI deputy director, says. “If you didn’t have that, you couldn’t open an investigation.”
Based on “paranoid fantasies,” as former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey recently put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that the government wants to snoop on what books we borrow at libraries, the Democrats are seeking to return the FBI to that era. The fact is that since the days when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered illegal wiretaps and improper surveillance, the FBI as an organization has not engaged in illegal conduct. Nor has any abuse — meaning surveillance conducted for political or other improper purposes — been uncovered since the Patriot Act was passed in 2001.
If the FBI cannot be trusted to conduct surveillance within the framework of the law, then why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons? What is the point of having an FBI if civil libertarians hobble it so it cannot perform its mission?
If the FBI were to abuse its authority, the appropriate response would be to prosecute those responsible and institute more oversight — not to make it more difficult to uncover clues to plots so that terrorists can avoid detection and kill innocent Americans.
Asked how he feels about some Democrats’ opposition to measures like the Patriot Act to help track and apprehend terrorists, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, told me for my book “The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack” that he is “disappointed” because “my colleagues for various reasons — some ideological, some political — are missing this threat to us.”
Are the Democrats suicidal? No, but they are just as reckless as Gov. Jon Corzine was when he went barreling down a New Jersey highway at 90 miles per hour without wearing a seat belt, leading to a near-fatal accident.
Corzine risked killing only himself. If they are successful in gutting the Patriot Act, Democrats risk contributing to the deaths of thousands of fellow Americans in an undetected terrorist attack.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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