Three cheers for the Patriot Act

Posted: Apr 19, 2004 12:00 AM

    The 9/11 Commission has revealed another zealot who supports the dreaded USA Patriot Act, insisting that "everything that's been done in the Patriot Act has been helpful." Not a few things. Not even most things. "Everything." Who is this thoughtless pawn of John Ashcroft? None other than former Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno.
   Not generally known for her taste for aggressive law enforcement, even Reno was chafing under aspects of the pre-Patriot Act legal regime. She told the commission of her frustration about not securing an expansion of so-called "pen register" authority so the feds could obtain phone records of suspected terrorists. "We were not able to get [it] passed during my tenure," she complained, "but that ultimately became a part of the Patriot Act."

    Just another reason to be grateful for the much-maligned act. If there has been a hero of the 9/11 Commission hearings, it isn't Richard Clarke or Condoleezza Rice so much as the Patriot Act. However compelling their respective performances, Clarke and Rice both have partisan detractors. The new law, in contrast, has been a bipartisan hit, credited with updating federal surveillance powers to deal with the terrorist threat and tearing down "the wall" that hampered the work of the FBI and CIA by forbidding cooperation between intelligence and law-enforcement officials.

    President Bush critic Richard Clarke refers in his book to "the needed reforms of the Patriot Act." The commission has heard this message from everyone. As its chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican, has said, "We did have witness after witness tell us that the Patriot Act has been very, very helpful, and if the Patriot Act, or portions of it, had been in place before 9/11, that would have been very helpful."

    What the Patriot Act fixed were the effects of three decades of liberal hostility to federal law enforcement and intelligence gathering. Although it is heartwarming that Reno now recognizes the need for the act, her Justice Department often acted as if it were a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her deputy, Jamie Gorelick, currently a deeply conflicted member of the 9/11 Commission, famously wrote a 1995 memo augmenting "the wall" that has become the most unpopular structure since a certain concrete barrier collapsed in Berlin in 1989. Reno wanted to avoid even the appearance of improper cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement, lest civil libertarians have an excuse to howl about police-state tactics.

    If hampering the work of counterterrorism officials prior to 9/11 was a mistake, perhaps it was understandable given the sleepy context of the time. What is unforgivable is opposing the Patriot Act even after 3,000 Americans were killed, partly because the FBI and CIA were so deeply dysfunctional. But this was exactly the posture of John Kerry and almost every other Democratic presidential candidate last year. They essentially portrayed the act as a tool appropriate only for Salem prosecutors circa 1692.

    During the primaries, Kerry blasted it as a violation of our fundamental rights: "We have learned from the ... Patriot Act that the last thing we need is John Ashcroft rewriting the Bill of Rights." A Kerry spokesman just the other day criticized Bush for "playing election-year politics with the Patriot Act." This is rich coming from the Kerry camp, when their candidate voted for the act and then viciously turned against it after seeing Howard Dean get political traction by trashing it.

    Bush's alleged election-year gambit is calling for the renewal of roughly a dozen provisions that will expire at the end of 2005, including those that tore down "the wall." There has been much debate about whether the war on terror is really a war, or just a law-enforcement action. As it happens, liberals not only oppose the war paradigm, they criticize the Patriot Act, the primary tool of law enforcement in the fight against terror too. They need to tune in to the work of the 9/11 Commission.