It seems the further away we are from September 11, 2001, the less Senate Democrats fear such attacks will happen again.
After that assault on American soil, in which nearly 3,000 people died, Congress took a number of steps to safeguard our country, including enactment of the U.S.A. Patriot Act to give the government the intelligence and law enforcement weapons to prevent another such attack.
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 allow an up-or-down Senate vote on the matter. Why? Because a majority of senators would have reauthorized 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 our troops are fight and die 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 September 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.”
As this is written, the life of the Patriot Act remains in doubt. But what is not in doubt is the continuing leftward drift of the Democrats in Congress, especially in the Senate.
Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, a likely presidential candidate in 2008, led Democrats’ opposition to the law’s extension, declaring he was fighting to “protect the rights and freedoms of innocent civilians.”
Of all the issues 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 what they expect from their government.
Critics like Mr. Feingold and the American Civil Liberties Union say the act is too broad, does not afford enough protection to people targeted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. One of the most frequent complaints is the FBI authority to examine people’s records, including the books they take out of libraries.
Rarely mentioned are the 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.
Moreover, the Patriot Act has not ended or weakened Congress’ oversight authority to examine and re-examine everything done under it. It can subpoena witnesses, demand records and fully investigate what the FBI does and why.
The Patriot Act is not the only national security apparatus under attack. Now liberal Democratic leaders are criticizing Mr. Bush’s directive, signed soon after September 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 thwart terrorist attacks on this country. Senior law-enforcement officials from the attorney general on down regularly review it. Ranking members of congressional intelligence committees 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 abandon their filibuster, Washington’s most important anti-terrorism efforts will end, but, as Bush warned last week, the terrorist threat will not.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.