The Patriot Act isn't broken
Its abuse must stop. Proper protection is key.
Remember when the USA Patriot Act was seen as a common-sense counterterrorism tool? Congress enacted the law shortly after the 9/11 attacks by large bipartisan majorities. It wasn't even close.Skip to next paragraph
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And for good reason: The Patriot Act made relatively modest changes to the law as it stood on Sept. 11, 2001. The act simply let terrorist- and spy-hunters use some of the same tools regular cops have had in their arsenal for decades. And it updated existing laws to make them more effective against terrorist threats.
As President Obama forges new security policies, let's hope he keeps the Patriot Act intact. The act works. According to the Justice Department, the Patriot Act helped take down Al Qaeda cells in Buffalo, N.Y. and Portland, Ore. Prosecutors used it to convict a Floridian who pled guilty to raising money for a terrorist group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And The act led to the conviction of a man who threatened to torch a Texas mosque.
Despite those successes, the act has become a civil libertarian bugaboo. We've all heard how the act poses a dire threat to liberty and privacy. Federal agents can search your house without ever telling you. The feds can force the phone company to reveal whom you've been calling, and they can rummage through library records to find out what books you've been reading. They can even brand you a terrorist and throw you in jail if you get in an argument with a flight attendant.
The daily reality is much less dramatic – and much less frightening.
Let's start with the flight attendants. It's been illegal to interfere with airline crews since JFK was president. The Patriot Act made it a crime to attempt or conspire to do what the law already barred.
The basic idea behind the change is prevention. We shouldn't have to wait for a passenger to take a crew member's life before we throw the book at him. We should be able to prosecute the steps he takes along the way – ignoring an order to return to his seat, pulling a box cutter from his pocket, and so on.
The Patriot Act's "sneak and peek" authority is also pretty long in the tooth. For decades, federal courts recognized special circumstances in which police may hold off on notifying a suspect that they've searched his house.
As the Supreme Court stressed in 1967, immediate notice could "provoke the escape of the suspect or the destruction of critical evidence." The Patriot act merely codified these judicial decisions and adopted a uniform, nationwide standard.