In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President George W. Bush called the bluff of Patriot Act critics. Bush pointed out that key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire next year, while “the terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule,” and he challenged Congress to renew this important antiterrorism measure.
You gotta love a president who is not going to seek a permission slip to protect the American people, especially when compared to the Democratic presidential contenders, who check with the ACLU before defending American security. Their attacks on the Patriot Act are straight from Planet Kucinich–incidentally, the only presidential candidate who actually voted against the Patriot Act in Congress.
The president explained during his address that the Patriot Act was one of those “essential tools” which allow federal law enforcement “to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells, and to seize their assets.” The bill passed in October 2001 with only one senator voting against it and with the support of 83 percent of the House of Representatives.
As the president pointed out, the law-enforcement methods outlined in the Patriot Act have been used for years to go after drug traffickers and mobsters, and are even “more important for hunting terrorists.” He could have been quoting Senator Joe Biden (D., Del.), who said at the time of the bill’s passage, “[T]he FBI could get a wiretap to investigate the mafia, but they could not get one to investigate terrorists. To put it bluntly, that was crazy! What’s good for the mob should be good for terrorists.”
Yet on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidates–even those who voted for the Patriot Act–sing another tune. Sen. John Kerry now claims, “If you are sensitive to and care about civil liberties, you can make provisions to guarantee that there is not this blind spot in the American justice system that there is today under the Patriot Act.” When Kerry voted for the bill in 2001, however, he observed: “Most of [the Patriot Act] has to do with improving the transfer of information between CIA and FBI, and it has to do with things that really were quite necessary in the wake of what happened on September 11th.”
Wesley Clark, who has put himself up as a national-security expert, says of this important national-security measure, “What I don’t understand is why we have [the Patriot Act] and why we need it.” Well, let’s explain it in the words of Sen. John Edwards, who hailed the bill upon passage: “We simply cannot prevail in the battle against terrorism if the right hand of our government has no idea what the left hand is doing.”
Unfortunately that’s the same Senator Edwards who now boasts of his national-security experience. On the campaign trail he claims, “I support dramatic revision of the Patriot Act.” Edwards has also said that “the notion that they are going to libraries to find out what books people are checking out, going to book stores to find out what books are being purchased…runs contrary to everything we believe in this country.”
But as the Washington Post editorialized last summer when Al Gore made ludicrous claims about libraries and the Patriot Act, “Much of the criticism of the [Patriot Act] has been shrill and ill-informed.” In fact, the bill’s so-called “library provision” has never even been used. If Senator Edwards had been paying attention in his briefings, he could have asked, and would have known better.
In recent Senate hearings, Senator Biden called criticism of the Patriot Act “ill-informed and overblown,” and commended the Bush administration’s prosecutors’ work in terrorism cases. In the same hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) also offered a strong defense of the Patriot Act, saying she believes there is “substantial uncertainty and perhaps some ignorance about what this bill actually does do and how it has been employed.”
And while Sen. Joe Lieberman can often be counted on to be a rare voice of sanity on the Democratic campaign trail, even he has attacked the bill: “Do you know that the worst violations of civil liberties after September 11th occurred not just under the Patriot Act, which, believe me, deserves to have a real close look?” Perhaps he should get that close look from Senator Feinstein, who actually did her homework: “I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me. My staff e-mailed the ACLU and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They e-mailed back and said they had none.”
When the Patriot Act passed, Joe Lieberman was on the mark: “[T]he measure that passed and was signed into law appropriately balances security and liberty.” Though Lieberman has wrongly changed his tune, President Bush remains on the mark now: “Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens; [Congress] need[s] to renew the Patriot Act.”
–Barbara Comstock is a former Department of Justice spokeswoman and currently a principal with Blank Rome Government Relations.