Patriot Acting Out
The phony case against an antiterror law.
To its supporters it's an essential tool for fighting terrorism, as President Bush said Tuesday night. To its detractors it's a dangerous infringement on civil liberties. So perhaps a few words of clarification are in order. Let's start with what two of its advocates had to say about the Patriot Act at the time of its passage not long after September 11:
Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.): "I support the conference report before the Senate today. . . . if one is going to cope with an al Qaeda, with a terrorist entity such as Osama bin Laden, who moves his money into this legitimate marketplace, law enforcement has to have the ability to hold people accountable . . ."
Senator John Edwards (D., N.C.): "When I met with FBI agents in Charlotte shortly after September 11, they told me their number one priority was to streamline the process for conducting investigations of foreigners operating in the United States. We've done that . . ."
Today Senators Kerry and Edwards and another erstwhile fan, Joe Lieberman, sing a different tune, seizing every opportunity to take shots at the law they and all but two of their fellow Senators voted for. (The House vote was 357-66.)
The Senators stand by their votes, saying parts of the law are still OK. But given the hostility to Mr. Bush and John Ashcroft among Democrats who vote in the primaries, they seem to have concluded that there's more to be gained in denouncing the law, albeit only in general terms. As Dennis Kucinich is fond of pointing out, he's the only Democratic Presidential candidate who voted against the Patriot Act.Maybe this is because most Patriot Act provisions are just plain common sense and in many cases have long been available in drug and Mafia cases. Take the roving wiretap, which follows a suspect rather than a specific phone that could be jettisoned after one call. If investigators can use roving wiretaps to track down drug peddlers--as has been permitted since 1986--they ought to be able to use them to catch terrorists.
Or consider the provision that permits access to library and other business records. Civil libertarians have been having a field day with this one, scaring librarians into thinking that Big Brother is invading the reading rooms of America. What they fail to mention is, first, that the law requires a court order. And second, that investigators in ordinary criminal cases can already gain access to library records--as happened in the 1997 Gianni Versace murder in Miami Beach and the 1990 Zodiac gunman case in Manhattan.
The law does a number of other useful things. Perhaps most important, it removes the legal barriers that used to forbid information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It's now legal for a federal prosecutor to tell the FBI if he has information about terrorist activities. That used to be a federal offense.
Justice Department says the Patriot Act has played "a key
part"--sometimes the "leading role"--in a number of successful
anti-terror operations. As for civil-liberties abuse, a useful measure
of just how profoundly threatening the law is should be Section 223,
the Patriot Act provision under which citizens can seek monetary
damages if they are mistreated. To date, the number of lawsuits is
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