Reauthorize the Patriot Act
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists inspired by hatred murdered nearly 3,000 innocent Americans. In response, Congress overwhelmingly passed the USA Patriot Act. Now, before it adjourns for the year, Congress must act again to reauthorize this critical piece of legislation. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are at work: Their stated goal is to kill Americans, cripple our economy and demoralize our people.
The bill to be considered this week is a good one. It equips law enforcement with the tools needed to fight terrorists, and it also includes new civil liberties protections. Members of Congress should put aside the rhetoric and focus on the facts surrounding this vital legislation.
The Patriot Act has been successful in helping prevent acts of terrorism in many ways. First, it updated anti-terrorism and criminal laws to reflect evolving technologies. Second, it increased penalties for those who commit terrorist crimes. Third, it gave terrorism investigators the same tools used by those who pursue drug dealers and the Mafia. Most important, the act helped break down the wall preventing regular exchange of information between the law enforcement and intelligence communities.
Four years later, after a lengthy and extensive public debate, Congress has produced a comprehensive reauthorization bill to permanently reauthorize 14 of the act's 16 expiring provisions. During this important debate, Republicans and Democrats have discovered that concerns raised about the act's impact on civil liberties, while sincere, were unfounded. There have been no verified civil liberties abuses in the four years of the act's existence.
Furthermore, the new bill adds 30 safeguards to protect privacy and civil liberties. Specifically, it includes measures providing that those who receive national security letters may consult an attorney and challenge the request in court; requires high-level Justice Department sign-off before investigators may ask a court to order production of certain sensitive records, such as those from a library; and requires that the FBI describe the target of a "roving wiretap" with sufficient specificity to ensure that only a single individual is targeted.
In addition, this bill further strengthens homeland security by creating a new national security division at the Justice Department, providing additional protections against the threat of attacks on mass transportation systems and at our seaports, and granting us additional tools to protect Americans from terrorism.
Congress must act now or risk bringing terrorism prevention to a halt. For example, it is widely accepted -- and documented by independent bodies such as the Sept. 11 and WMD commissions -- that a lack of information-sharing and coordination in our government before the attacks of Sept. 11 compromised our ability to connect the dots about what our enemies were doing. The Patriot Act helped dismantle this barrier. And if we allow certain provisions to "sunset" on Jan. 1, we risk shutting down essential intelligence-sharing that occurs in the National Counterterrorism Center and other facilities where law enforcement officials sit side-by-side with intelligence professionals.
Those who voice concern that Congress is rushing to reauthorize the expiring provisions fail to recognize the oversight it has conducted. In 2005, Congress held 23 hearings focused on reauthorization and heard from more than 60 witnesses. The Justice Department was pleased to provide witnesses at 18 of those hearings, with more than 30 appearances by our experts. I testified three times, explaining the importance of the act, responding to concerns and directly addressing the act's critics. My testimony was informed not only by the successes of the act but also by my personal meetings with representatives from groups such as the ACLU and the American Library Association. During the reauthorization discussion, I asked that certain provisions be clarified to ensure the protection of civil liberties, and Congress responded.
For example, Section 215 of the act permits the government to obtain records on an order issued by a federal judge. I agreed that the statute should allow a recipient of such an order to consult a lawyer and challenge it in court. Further, I agreed that Congress should make explicit the standard under which such orders are issued: relevance to an authorized national security investigation. In 2001 one prominent Democratic senator agreed that the "FBI has made a clear case that a relevance standard is appropriate for counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations, as well as for criminal investigations."
The president has said that our number-one priority is preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack. Congress must act immediately and reauthorize the Patriot Act before the men and women in law enforcement lose the tools they need to keep us safe.
The writer is attorney general of the United States. He will answer questions about this column today at 3:05 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.