July 11, 2005 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
Sixteen provisions in the Patriot Act that support domestic
counterterrorism operations are set to expire at the end of 2005.
The House Judiciary Committee plans to mark up a bill renewing
these authorities this week. The committee's timing could not be
better. The recent bombings in London remind us that there is
little room for complacency in the war on terrorism.
Passed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Patriot Act includes authorities that strengthen the capacity of law enforcement to conduct counterterrorism investigations. These provisions (1) encourage intelligence sharing, (2) authorize the use of law enforcement tools already employed to combat other crimes in counterterrorism investigations, and (3) provide means of surveillance appropriate for modern technologies like cell phones and the Internet. Recognizing that these were significant powers, the Act stipulated that all the authorities would "sunset" this year, unless reauthorized by law.
London and the Law
It is too early to tell whether these provisions might be useful to combat threats similar to the terrorist strikes in London. We do not know enough yet about exactly what happened. Some early speculation suggests that the bombings were the work of a small domestic group, operating independently. In that case, the Patriot Act authorities might have been little help. The Act, after all, was not designed to intrude into the lives of everyday citizens. A few individuals acting independently (like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber) might never attract the attention of law enforcement. The Patriot Act is more useful at rooting out operations by transnational terrorists working on or with agents on U.S. soil. If it turns out the London attack was part of an elaborate conspiracy that involved the use of modern communications, business records, or individuals who might have been required to testify before a grand jury, then indeed the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act could have saved lives.
A Lesson to Learn
For now, there is at least one lesson we can learn from London that argues that Congress ought to renew the expiring Patriot Act provisions sooner rather than later. That lesson is that we need to take the threat of transnational terrorism seriously. Only a few years after 9/11, there are persistent voices claiming that the United States has overreacted and that the notion of a war on terrorism is simply wrongheaded. London reminds us that these critics are flat wrong. There are serious people out there trying to kill us, and we need to stop them. The expiring provisions can help. Given that there have been no documented abuses of the Act, that the Act has proven itself useful in counterterrorism investigations, and that there is a real terrorist threat to combat, Congress should renew the expiring provisions without delay. Indeed, there really is no controversy about the Act except for on the very fringe of the Left. For example, a bipartisan group of former national security and law enforcement officials, from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, recently recommended permanent renewal of the 16 expiring provisions, with a few modest "tweaks." Reauthorizing the expiring provisions would serve as a powerful declaration to American citizens, and terrorists, that Congress is not afraid to fight terror.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security, and Alane Kochems is a Research Assistant, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Paul Rosenzweig is Senior Legal Research Fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.