WASHINGTON -- It seems the further away we are from Sept. 11, 2001, the less Senate Democrats fear such attacks will happen again.
In the aftermath of that assault on American soil, in which nearly 3,000 people died, Congress took a number of steps to safeguard our country, including the enactment of the USA Patriot Act to give the government the intelligence and law enforcement weapons to prevent another Sept. 11. But last week, with the Patriot Act due to expire at the end of this month, most Senate Democrats, joined by four Republicans, voted to let it die.
Irrational, largely left-wing opposition to this important anti-terrorism tool was bad enough, but Democratic leaders refused to even let the Senate conduct an up-or-down vote on the matter. Why? Because a majority of senators would have voted to reauthorize it.
Instead, the House-passed reauthorization was blocked as a result of a Democratic filibuster that requires 60 votes to move toward a final vote by majority rule. When the roll was called, 53 senators (mostly Republicans) voted to end the filibuster, seven short of 60-vote cutoff.
How ironic that in a vote to preserve strategic national security tools needed to protect and defend our democratic freedoms, a leftist minority of senators was able to prevent a democratic vote, a right that our troops are fighting and dying to protect in Iraq.
President Bush made a statement after the vote that summed up what was clearly at stake here: "The terrorists want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage than they did on Sept. 11 -- and Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool that law enforcement and intelligence officials have used to protect the American people."
Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, a likely presidential candidate in 2008, led the Democrats' opposition to the law's extension, declaring that he was fighting to "protect the rights and freedoms of innocent civilians."
Of all the issues that are in the top tier of national concerns, the Patriot Act is not among them. Americans have formed a government to protect them. Safety and national security is at the top of the list of things they expect from their government. Critics like Feingold and the American Civil Liberties Union say the act is too broad, that it does do enough to protect people who are targets of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. One of the most frequently mentioned complaints is the FBI's authority to examine people's records, including the books they take out of libraries.
What is rarely mentioned is that there are many safeguards against any abuses of these powers. The government must go into court to show cause why certain records must be obtained and examined, and what is at stake in their investigations.
The Patriot Act is not the only national security apparatus under attack. Now liberal Democratic leaders are criticizing Bush's directive, signed soon after Sept. 11, to have the super-secret National Security Agency conduct intelligence gathering among terrorist networks.
The technology of electronic eavesdropping has improved exponentially in recent years and has helped to thwart terrorist attacks on this country. Senior law enforcement officials from the attorney general on down regularly review it. Ranking members of the intelligence committees of the Congress are kept apprised of its work and knew of the president's order. The New York Times' exposure of NSA's work has no doubt damaged America's efforts to uncover terrorist cells plotting to inflict untold death and destruction in our country. The latest move in the Senate to block a vote on the Patriot Act's renewal similarly undermines the government's ability to prevent terrorists from striking again.
If the Democrats do not abandoned their filibuster, Washington's most important anti-terrorism efforts will end, but, as Bush warned last week, the terrorist threat will not.