October 22, 2003
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
It's easier to scare someone than to
persuade him. That must be why opponents of the Patriot Act say so
many frightening things. It hides the fact they can't back up their
charges with any examples of actual abuse.
In one case, the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU) sent colorful posters to hundreds of libraries.
"Attention," they warned, "under Section 215 of the federal USA
Patriot Act, records of the books and other materials you borrow
from this library may be obtained by federal agents." Scary
The American Library Association also
weighed in, calling parts of the Patriot Act "a present danger to
the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users."
But the reality doesn't match the rhetoric.
As Attorney General John Ashcroft pointed out last month, "the
number of times Section 215 has been used to date is zero."
Think about that. Section 215 has never
been used. Not once in two years. This actually seems more like an
example of governmental restraint than a cautionary tale about an
out-of-control Justice Department.
In fact, despite what you've probably
heard, our civil liberties may be safer under the Patriot Act.
"There are now more protections, including the requirement of a
judicial authority to get third-party records such as library
records," former Attorney General Ed Meese, my Heritage Foundation
colleague, recently observed. "This is not the ability to go into
someone's home and take their private papers."
Business records are protected, too. David
Zapolsky, associate general counsel for Amazon.com, recently told
The New York Times "the government doesn't need the Patriot
Act to ask for [customer] information. They routinely ask for it
simply by filling out a form that says 'subpoena'." As Zapolsky
notes, those subpoenas usually don't require a judge's approval.
Patriot Act requests do.
All the Patriot Act really did was take
many laws that were already on the books and apply them to
terrorism. For example, the government now has the same power to
wiretap terrorist suspects that it has long had to wiretap
suspected members of organized crime. All these wiretaps, of
course, are conducted under a judge's supervision.
Unlike Patriot Act opponents, who can't
cite examples of abuse, supporters are able to point to specific
ways it helps keep us safe. Prosecutors and investigators now can
exchange information in ways they couldn't before Sept. 11. The
Justice Department, for instance, says the Patriot Act helped it
obtain a criminal indictment of Sami al-Arian, the alleged U.S.
leader of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
But such results shouldn't matter,
according to ACLU President Nadine Strossen. As she put it, "what's
so important is that it's not only librarians and civil
libertarians, but many members of Congress, including conservative
Republicans, who are saying that this law went too far too
In other words, what's important to
Strossen is that many people have been frightened into opposing the
Patriot Act. Never mind whether they actually have any legitimate
reason to be frightened.
But what should
be important is whether people truly understand the law, truly
understand what the government can do under it (and what the
government can't do), and truly understand how the law makes us
safer from terrorists.
clear: In more than two years, there hasn't been a single proven
abuse of the Patriot Act. Not one.
The law is working as it was supposed to, by making life
more difficult for terrorists. That should help all of us-even the
leaders of the ACLU-sleep better at night.
Ed Feulner is the
president of The Heritage Foundation.
Scaremongers have had a field day with the Patriot Act. Too bad they have no evidence to stand on.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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