Defending the Patriot Act

In today’s National Review Online, the Justice Department’s Director of Public Affairs, Barbara Comstock, does a nice job of defending the Patriot Act against criticisms leveled by Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute. She also links to a new Justice Department site devoted to explaining the Patriot Act.
The Act has been the subject of an amazing amount of misinformation propagated, apparently, by people who have never taken the trouble to read the statute. In reality, what is striking about the Patriot Act is how limited it is and how overdue most of its provisions were. For the most part, the act takes law enforcement techniques that have long been used to combat organized crime and applies them to terrorism. These reforms are so sensible that it is hard to believe they didn’t happen many years ago. For example: The traditional wiretap warrant applies to a particular telephone number. For a long time, the police in organized crime cases have used “roving wiretaps” to access any phones that might be used by the person under investigation. Prior to the Patriot Act, that couldn’t be done in terrorism cases. Consequently, all a terrorist had to do to evade a wiretap was change from one cell phone to another.
Beyond bringing the law relating to terrorism investigations up to date by conforming it to existing practices in organized crime cases, the other major initiative of the Patriot Act was to allow law enforcement, intelligence and national defense agencies to communicate with one another and share information about terrorism, under court supervision. If someone is opposed to this, I would certainly like to know why. The intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been widely criticized for their failure to “connect the dots” prior to September 11. The truth is that they were prohibited by law from sharing “dots” with one another, which made them needlessly hard to connect.

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