The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to debate the key aspects of the Patriot Act today. The debate comes in the wake of the takedown of three terror plots: Najibullah Zazi from Afghanistan was arrested in connection to a plot to bomb the New York subway system; Hosam Maher Husein Smadi from Jordan was apprehended while planting a bomb at a Dallas skyscraper; and American "jihadist fighter" Michael Finton was arrested after attempting to detonate a car bomb outside a federal courthouse in Springfield, Ill. These arrests demonstrate that the threat from domestic and international terrorism is ongoing.
Three key provisions of the act are at issue, all of which will expire in about 90 days unless reauthorized. Section 206 authorizes "roving wiretaps," which target the person under investigation rather than the device they are using to communicate - a much-needed revision of laws that were written when telephones were hard-wired into walls and long before the days of disposable cell phones. Section 215 gives federal agents investigating national-security cases access to business records under orders from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. This is a tool that has long been at the disposal of state and local law enforcement and is necessary to break terrorist financing networks.
Section 6001 authorizes targeting of "lone wolf" terrorists who are not agents of a foreign power or an international terrorist organization. Under previous laws, only agents of a foreign power or those acting on behalf of a foreign power could be monitored, a provision that amounts to unilateral disarmament in the days of globally networked nonstate actors bent on creating mayhem.
These provisions are critical tools in the continuing struggle against violent extremists. The United States has not suffered another domestic terror incident on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks largely because law enforcement and the intelligence community were given the tools they need to keep Americans safe, tools they had been denied in the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. Some have expressed concern that the Patriot Act is a threat to civil liberties. Yet eight years after its passage, critics of the Patriot Act speak of abuses that could, might or may happen, not of any that have happened. Given the continuing terror threat and the potential for resurgent state-sponsored terrorism under Iranian patronage, this is no time for America to let down its guard.
We find ourselves in rare agreement with President Obama. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 14 laying out the administration's rationale for reauthorizing these sections without amendment. This may come as a surprise to those who are under the impression that the president might favor radically revising the Patriot Act, or doing away with it altogether. But in 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama supported a Patriot Act reauthorization that contained only minor modifications to the original law.
The president's support for the Patriot Act likely is based on two critical factors. Now that Mr. Obama is responsible for implementing the law, he may better understand its practical utility and the checks in place to protect civil liberties. The administration also does not want to set itself up for blame should a domestic terror attack occur. It would be easy in that case for critics to say Mr. Obama was "the president who weakened the laws that protect Americans from terrorists." This goes to show that the most politically expedient course is sometimes the smartest.