Patriots must act

Posted: Jan 31, 2006 12:04 AM
The most consequential part of President Bush’s State of the Union address tonight, at least in the near-term, will be the section he devotes to the need to ensure that the Nation’s law enforcement and intelligence communities have the tools they need to protect us. In particular, he will make a strong case for the Patriot Act – one we can only hope the minority of Senators currently blocking its reenactment will heed.

Mr. Bush afforded a small group of us an insight into his thinking on this and related matters, and a sense of the urgency he will attach to the Patriot Act’s renewal, in a meeting last Thursday. Those present included eighteen preeminent national security, intelligence, legal and public policy practitioners – nearly all of whom had previously held senior U.S. government posts and signed a letter to Congress circulated last week by the Coalition for Security, Liberty and the Law.

In informal remarks and extended, candid give-and-take with the participants, the President communicated the gravity of the peril we face. As Osama bin Laden’s most recent audio tape reminds us, enemies of this country remain intent on hitting us again, and hope to do so with even more devastating effect than on 9/11.

Two of those present knew firsthand the costs of the last attack on our homeland: Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who lost his wife, Barbara, on American Airlines Flight 77 when it was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon; and Debra Burlingame, the sister of Capt. Charles “Chic” Burlingame, that doomed aircraft’s pilot.

In the four-plus years since September 11, 2001, both have selflessly served their country. Mr. Olson was, until recently, the third-ranking official in the Department of Justice and a leader on its counterterrorism litigation and policy-making.

For her part, Ms. Burlingame has become one of the most visible, and formidable, of the 9/11 family members in championing counterterrorism legislation and policies needed to prevent future terrorist attacks in this country – and opposing initiatives that would undermine America’s ability to do so.

Such concerns prompted her to write a powerful op.ed. article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about the need to renew the Patriot Act and to continue presidentially authorized, warrantless “hot pursuit” of enemy communications by the National Security Agency – even when one of the parties is inside the United States and may be an American citizen. Under the headline, “Our Right to Security,” she observes:

“A minority of senators want to gamble with American lives and ‘fix’ national security laws, which they can’t show are broken. They seek to eliminate or weaken anti-terrorism measures which take into account that the Cold War and its slow-moving, analog world of landlines and stationary targets is gone. The threat we face today is a completely new paradigm of global terrorist networks operating in a high-velocity digital age using the Web and fiber-optic technology.

“After four-and-a-half years without another terrorist attack, these senators think we’re safe enough to cave in to the same civil liberties lobby that supported that deadly Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “wall” [which, before the Patriot Act, prevented information-sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agencies that might have thwarted the 9/11 attacks] in the first place. What if they…are simply wrong?”

In a television ad produced by the Coalition for Security, Liberty and the Law, Ms. Burlingame asks a further question: “What will [those senators] say to their constituents if another attack occurs that might have been prevented” had key provisions of the Patriot Act not been weakened or allowed to expire?

These are questions the President himself should pointedly pose during tonight’s address: Does anyone listening – in the House chambers and across this great country – want to bet, in the face of known threats and likely ones, that we can responsibly deny those charged with protecting us the tools they have successfully used since 2001?

Are the Patriot Act’s critics really willing to risk the lives of potentially many thousands of Americans on a gamble that we can once again safely accord terrorists more legal protections than we do drug-traffickers, racketeers and other criminals – an anamolous, not to say bizarre, situation corrected by the Patriot Act?

The truth of the matter is, as Debra Burlingame puts it so well: “Ask the American people what they want. They will say that they want the commander-in-chief to use all reasonable means to catch the people who are trying to rain terror on our cities.”

So tonight, Mr. Bush should – and I am confident, will – make clear that neither he nor the Congress have any duty higher than that of protecting the American people. Adopting the conference report that will extend or make permanent the Patriot Act’s “sunsetted” provisions, and preserve its full usefulness in combating terror at home, is consistent with that duty. Filibustering the conference report – to say nothing of the boast last month by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid that opponents had “killed the Patriot Act” – is not.