Rethink the Patriot Act

Posted: Feb 12, 2011 12:01 AM
Rethink the Patriot Act

This week, the House failed to pass a one-year reauthorization of three provisions of the Patriot Act, even though the Republican leadership tried fast-tracking the effort without allowing the traditional airing of grievances.

There wouldn't be any piddling "amendments" or too much "debate" (so kinda like the process that brought you Obamacare). Yet conservatives have a number of reasons to open a discussion on the Patriot Act for their own good.

This administration, after all that grousing, supports the extension, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cautioned Congress that the "terrorist threat facing our country has evolved significantly in the last 10 years -- and continues to evolve -- so that, in some ways, the threat facing us is at its most heightened state since those attacks."

Hey, I believe her. And drawing from my vast reservoir of journalistic know-how (Googling), I've uncovered an astonishing fact: Every year since 2002, government officials have warned us that terrorists are becoming more potent, more creative, more resolved, more dangerous than ever -- always intimating that if the public only knew what they did, we'd be curled up in our cellars crying. Expect that trend to continue.

Unlike many Patriot Act critics, though, I don't view this kind of rhetoric as pure scaremongering. The spread of orthodox Islam has produced the likes of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- and less "successful" adherents with bombs tucked in chinos -- and is a genuine threat to liberty.

But unless Homeland Security has invented a clandestine psychological weapon that has been transforming potential terrorists into incompetent boobs, I'd say that astute citizens and dumb luck have far more to do with our success in the war on terror on the homefront than the Patriot Act.

Let's give Homeland Security the benefit of the doubt and accept that these "tools" have stopped horrible events. If sob stories about single moms living without health insurance are not sufficient grounds to accept that government can coerce us into buying insurance, why is the threat of terrorism enough for us to accept warrantless searches on U.S. citizens?

Americans often have an intuitive understanding of individual freedom -- as well as constitutional expectations. Isn't that what the tea party is about? There were 26 Republican defectors in the House, and it doesn't reflect well on the rest of the GOP that in the throes of embracing original intent, Republicans try to ram through an extension of the Patriot Act without giving critics a fair hearing.

Was it the Founders' intent to allow government to demand any "tangible things" (the "business records" provision), which include banking or medical or library records, without the government's having to let any court know why the information is sought or how it's connected to a terrorism investigation?

Was it the Founders' intention to allow "roving wiretaps" -- which seem like a necessity of the modern information age -- to be used without identifying what the method of communication will be or even naming a person on the warrant?

Of course, there's no need to be conspiratorial about law enforcement officials; they almost certainly aren't abusing provisions for kicks. But precedent matters, and administrations change, and unforeseen events can lead officials to use existing law for unforeseen and bothersome reasons in the future.

Conservatives can make constitutional arguments and try to keep us safe. Surely, tweaking and revising the Patriot Act to guard against abuse is not suicidal. Doing so, in fact, would go a long way in showing the American people that they're serious about the threat of Islamic radicalism because they're serious about the values and liberties we're supposed to be protecting.

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