July 18, 2005 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Protect the Patriot Act

Nothing lasts forever. Even some federal laws come with expiration dates.

When lawmakers passed the USA Patriot Act in 2001, they put in "sunset" provisions. Unless Congress acts to renew portions of the Act, they will expire at the end of the year.

That was a reasonable precaution. The Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11, when everyone was focused on preventing another terrorist attack. Lawmakers wanted to make sure that the Patriot Act would protect us without trampling the civil rights we Americans rightly cherish.

Today, almost four years later, the verdict is in: The Patriot Act works -- and the provisions scheduled to "sunset" should be renewed.

Of course, this being Washington, not everyone agrees.

Critics tend to focus on Section 215 of the Act. It allows a special federal court to approve a search warrant for any tangible thing (books, records, papers, documents and other items) during an investigation aimed at international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Such a search is allowed, provided the investigation doesn't violate the First Amendment rights of an American citizen.

This is a critical power. As Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey told Congress last month, "You want to catch a terrorist with his hands on the check instead of his hands on the bomb. You want to be many steps ahead of the devastating event. The way we do that is through preventive and disruptive measures, by using investigative tools to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can, and then incapacitating a target at the right moment."

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives may ignore Comey's advice. It's considering an amendment called "The Freedom to Read Act," aimed at repealing Section 215. As the title of the measure implies, the bill's authors play up the perception that investigators might be combing through library records or poring over the shelves at the local bookstore.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Section 215 has been used only 35 times from the time the Patriot Act was passed until March 30 of this year -- and it never has been used to subpoena a record from a bookstore or a library. How do we know? Because the attorney general and the FBI director are required to inform Congress every time Section 215 is used. That's the sort of oversight that protects the civil rights of Americans.

On the other hand, if we repeal Section 215, we remove even the possibility that the police could investigate suspicious activity in a library or a bookstore. We'd effectively make those places safe havens for terrorists. That would clearly be a big mistake.

The recent attacks in London should prove that the struggle against terrorism is far from over. In response to those bombings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed that his government would launch "vigorous and intensive" manhunts to catch those responsible.

One reason they're playing catch-up is because Britain doesn't yet have an anti-terrorism law such as the Patriot Act, so the government hasn't been tracking potential terrorists as aggressively as it could. Not surprisingly, lawmakers there are now expected to pass a measure giving police more power to detain and prosecute suspects.

The Patriot Act has given our law-enforcement officials reasonable and necessary powers, and they've been successful. Nationwide, we know of dozens of terror cells broken up by police since 9/11. Those groups were not able to complete their planning or launch their missions, and as a result we haven't suffered any major attacks here in the U.S.

Plenty of federal laws ought to be improved or eliminated. The tax code should be amended to make taxes flatter and fairer. Wasteful farm subsidies included in the misleadingly labeled "The Farm Security Act of 2002" should be repealed.

But the Patriot Act is doing exactly what it's supposed to do: helping protect us from terrorists. Congress should make sure the entire Act is renewed before those protections expire. We can't allow the terrorists to gain any momentum in this fight.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

Nothing lasts forever. Even some federal laws come with expiration dates.

When lawmakers passed the USA Patriot Act in 2001, they put in "sunset" provisions. Unless Congress acts to renew portions of the Act, they will expire at the end of the year.

That was a reasonable precaution. The Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11, when everyone was focused on preventing another terrorist attack. Lawmakers wanted to make sure that the Patriot Act would protect us without trampling the civil rights we Americans rightly cherish.

Today, almost four years later, the verdict is in: The Patriot Act works -- and the provisions scheduled to "sunset" should be renewed.

Of course, this being Washington, not everyone agrees.

Critics tend to focus on Section 215 of the Act. It allows a special federal court to approve a search warrant for any tangible thing (books, records, papers, documents and other items) during an investigation aimed at international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Such a search is allowed, provided the investigation doesn't violate the First Amendment rights of an American citizen.

This is a critical power. As Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey told Congress last month, "You want to catch a terrorist with his hands on the check instead of his hands on the bomb. You want to be many steps ahead of the devastating event. The way we do that is through preventive and disruptive measures, by using investigative tools to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can, and then incapacitating a target at the right moment."

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives may ignore Comey's advice. It's considering an amendment called "The Freedom to Read Act," aimed at repealing Section 215. As the title of the measure implies, the bill's authors play up the perception that investigators might be combing through library records or poring over the shelves at the local bookstore.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Section 215 has been used only 35 times from the time the Patriot Act was passed until March 30 of this year -- and it never has been used to subpoena a record from a bookstore or a library. How do we know? Because the attorney general and the FBI director are required to inform Congress every time Section 215 is used. That's the sort of oversight that protects the civil rights of Americans.

On the other hand, if we repeal Section 215, we remove even the possibility that the police could investigate suspicious activity in a library or a bookstore. We'd effectively make those places safe havens for terrorists. That would clearly be a big mistake.

The recent attacks in London should prove that the struggle against terrorism is far from over. In response to those bombings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed that his government would launch "vigorous and intensive" manhunts to catch those responsible.

One reason they're playing catch-up is because Britain doesn't yet have an anti-terrorism law such as the Patriot Act, so the government hasn't been tracking potential terrorists as aggressively as it could. Not surprisingly, lawmakers there are now expected to pass a measure giving police more power to detain and prosecute suspects.

The Patriot Act has given our law-enforcement officials reasonable and necessary powers, and they've been successful. Nationwide, we know of dozens of terror cells broken up by police since 9/11. Those groups were not able to complete their planning or launch their missions, and as a result we haven't suffered any major attacks here in the U.S.

Plenty of federal laws ought to be improved or eliminated. The tax code should be amended to make taxes flatter and fairer. Wasteful farm subsidies included in the misleadingly labeled "The Farm Security Act of 2002" should be repealed.

But the Patriot Act is doing exactly what it's supposed to do: helping protect us from terrorists. Congress should make sure the entire Act is renewed before those protections expire. We can't allow the terrorists to gain any momentum in this fight.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office