February 13, 2006

February 13, 2006 | Commentary on Legal Issues

At last, sanity on terror

Addressing the nation's security in a post-9/11 world, the White House and dissident GOP senators have reached a deal on the most vital issue of the day, the Patriot Act. And it's about time.

The Patriot Act takes longstanding legal provisions and adapts them to protect the nation against terrorist attacks. The act's authors took great care to ensure that rights guaranteed by the Constitution are not sacrificed at the altar of enhanced national security.

To hear critics tell it, the Patriot Act is a major departure from our legal traditions, one that allows law-enforcement agencies to run roughshod over civil liberties. That's flat wrong. Let's be clear about what exactly the Patriot Act does.

First, it makes crimefighting techniques employed against drug cartels, organized crime and child pornography rings available to those fighting terrorism. For example, it allows courts issuing search warrants to postpone informing terror suspects that they are under investigation until after a search has been conducted. A common tool of racketeering investigations, this practice reduces the chance that a suspect will destroy evidence, warn co-conspirators or flee the country once he knows investigators are onto him.

Second, it brings electronic surveillance laws up to date. Previous statutes regulating communications surveillance date from a time (1968 for criminal investigations and 1978 for foreign intelligence) when cell phones, personal computers, voice mail and the Internet didn't even exist. Al Qaeda doesn't run its communications through land lines and telegraph wires. The Patriot Act lets investigators contend with the laptops and other 21st century communication devices terrorists use daily.

Third, the act removes the barrier that previously blocked intelligence officers and law enforcement agents from sharing information - an improvement recommended by all of the commissions that have studied the problems that plagued our intelligence agencies at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Fourth, the Patriot Act strengthens existing criminal laws that pertain to terrorism and defines certain additional offenses (such as terrorist attacks against mass transit targets) to fill existing gaps in the law.

While strengthening the ability of Homeland Security and law-enforcement agencies to protect the nation against terrorists, the Patriot Act actually provides greater protection of civil rights and individual liberty than existed before.

The wailing over privacy rights in libraries reflects a complete misreading of the Patriot Act. It doesn't mention libraries at all. Its mention of "books," which has fueled paranoid fantasies among the nation's librarians, refers to financial records - the kind crooks like to cook. Security agencies have never yearned to learn what Johnny's reading, and they've never tried to get a reading list from a library.

It's instructive to note that, despite their near-hysterical rhetoric, the act's opponents can't point to even one documented case of abuse under the act more than four years after its passage. During that time, however, security agencies have been able to capture 401 terror suspects with the aid of the act. More than half (212) have already pleaded guilty or been convicted. And there has not been one successful attack on our homeland.

The time for politics and misinformation is over. Citizen safety is at stake. Congress should make final debate and prompt voting on the USA Patriot Act its immediate priority. Our national security requires no less.

Edwin Meese III, a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation, served as attorney general under President Reagan. James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at Heritage.

About the Author

Edwin Meese III Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

First appeared on NYDailyNews.com