Six years ago today President Bush signed the Patriot Act, a comprehensive bill aimed at giving law enforcement and intelligence officials all the tools they would need to fight a new kind of enemy. Despite the well-publicized assertion of a leading Democrat during a Senate reauthorization fight two years ago, this statute is not dead. And, based on reports we get from the field, anyone who values their security should be very happy about that.
Intelligence officials tell us the Patriot Act is as valuable today as the day it was signed. They have given us real-world examples of its positive impact in discovering and disrupting terrorist plots overseas and at home. And common sense concurs. After all, the best piece of evidence is the one that is most obvious and most important: not a single successful attack on U.S. soil since the morning we awoke to the danger and acted on it in our laws.
This success is due above all to the dedicated work of law-enforcement officials at the local, state, and national levels. But it also flows from the sensible provisions contained in the Patriot Act. Some simply extended to terrorists a number of traditional evidence gathering techniques that had been used for years in the hunt for common criminals like bank robbers and drug dealers. Others removed bureaucratic barriers that had kept intelligence officials and criminal investigators from sharing information, a simple but major shift that FBI director Robert Mueller has credited with “significantly alter[ing] the landscape for conducting terrorism investigations.”
Indeed, alarmist concerns notwithstanding, the Patriot Act is one of the most important and overdue pieces of legislation in a generation. My guess is that most Americans were more alarmed to discover that arcane laws once hobbled intelligence agents from tracing terrorist phone calls than they are by the streamlined practice of it now. Or that in August 2001, the FBI’s criminal investigation unit denied an intelligence agent from its own ranks the information he needed to track down the two men who would soon fly a commercial airplane into the Pentagon.
Another sensible provision in the Patriot Act involved an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. Prior to the Patriot Act, intelligence officials were authorized under FISA to listen in on phone conversations involving overseas terrorists but required to get a new court order if the suspect changed cell phones. You don’t have to be Jack Bauer to know that today’s terrorists are wise to evasion tactics. This was a dangerous loophole in desperate need of repair.
Unfortunately, some members of Congress have allowed the passage of time and the success of our efforts under the Patriot Act to dull their sense of urgency. Others have caved into the fears of a political base that has become increasingly radicalized in its opposition to anything the President supports. Two senators in particular have recently said they plan to block the full Senate from taking up a FISA reauthorization bill that was reported out of the Intelligence Committee last week with near-unanimous, bipartisan support.
Opponents of the reauthorization bill say they oppose it because it would give phone companies protection from lawsuits alleging they were wrong to share customer information with intelligence officials. This, despite the fact that U.S. businesses have always viewed sharing information to save American lives as being a patriotic duty they were only too happy to fulfill. Opponents also worry about an update that allows agents to listen in on phone calls that emanate from terror suspects abroad. But the Bill of Rights was never meant to cover terrorists in Diyala, Karachi, or Tehran.
Indeed, if there is any criticism at all with the proposed FISA reauthorization, it is that it does not go far enough. Most Americans have the common sense to recognize that FISA and every other tool we have used in this fight are worth making permanent. An open secret on Capitol Hill is that most Democrats do too. If there is one lesson from Sept. 11 that we should have learned by now, it is that the people who protect us from terrorism should have more, not fewer, tools to do their jobs. The Patriot Act and FISA are among the most valuable. It is time we acknowledged as much.
— Senator Mitch McConnell is Senate Republican leader.