Recently there has been extensive press coverage of Rep. Bernard Sanders’ opposition to the USA Patriot Act. Much of this coverage has been inaccurate, unbalanced and unnecessarily frightening to the public. It is time to set the record straight.
As recognized in the Declaration of Independence, the first responsibility of government is to preserve the lives and liberty of the people. Following the horrific events of Sept. 11, President Bush, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in a rare display of bipartisanship, vowed to do everything within the boundaries of the Constitution to prevent additional terrorist attacks.
The Patriot Act is one of the most significant tools Congress has given to law enforcement to combat the people that want to kill Americans on U.S. soil. The Patriot Act passed 98 to 1 in the Senate and 357 to 66 in the House of Representatives. Sanders was one of the 66 House members to vote against the USA Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act has enhanced the fight against terrorists in four key areas: (1) it has removed obstacles to investigating terrorism; (2) it has strengthened the criminal laws against terrorism; (3) it has enhanced the federal government’s capacity to share intelligence; and (4) it has updated the law to keep pace with tremendous advances in technology.
Essentially the Patriot Act gives investigators the ability to fight terror, using many of the same court-approved tools that have been used successfully for many years in drug, fraud, and organized crime cases. Do the critics of the Patriot Act believe that law enforcement should not use these same tools to protect Americans from terrorists?
The critics of the Patriot Act also fail to tell the American people that the Patriot Act is actually working to protect them.
As of May 5, 2004, the Department of Justice has charged 310 defendants with criminal offenses as a result of terrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and 179 of those defendants have already been convicted, including shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Four terrorist cells in Buffalo, Portland, Detroit, and Seattle have been broken up, and millions of dollars in assets destined to finance terrorist activities have been frozen or forfeited. Details of the successes of the Patriot Act can be found on the Department of Justice Web site, www.usdoj.gov and at www.lifeandliberty.gov.
Despite the success of the Patriot Act, many misconceptions and myths have emerged about the intention and the content of the Patriot Act.
Instead of providing a single example of the Patriot Act being misused, opponents make frightening, unsubstantiated claims that the Patriot Act is a virtual roll back of the First Amendment. Indeed, one often wonders whether these critics have even read the Patriot Act.
While debate on the Patriot Act or any other law is healthy and forms the cornerstone of American democracy, misinformed debate neither enlightens nor teaches. It is therefore vital that Vermonters get accurate information and decide on the validity of the Patriot Act for themselves. In this regard, much of the current criticism about the Patriot Act is simply not true.
One provision that opponents particularly criticize is the business records provision (Section 215), which opponents, including Sanders, claim gives law enforcement carte-blanche to examine our reading habits at libraries or bookstores. This claim is misleading and intended to frighten law-abiding citizens.
Library records have long been obtainable pursuant to grand jury subpoenas in routine criminal investigations. In fact, library records obtained by subpoena or voluntarily provided were an important part of the years-long investigation into the murderous activities of the Unibomber.
Are these critics of the Patriot Act advocating shielding from law enforcement scrutiny the library records of terrorists who obtain books or other materials on bomb building or anthrax cultivation? In such instances, the Patriot Act now allows terror investigators to obtain court orders, issued by judges sitting in a specialized court in Washington, for such records in international terrorism cases.
That court must find that the requested records are relevant to either obtaining foreign intelligence information against someone other than a United States citizen or to protect against terrorism or spying. The act expressly forbids investigation solely based on First Amendment activities.
Another provision that has caused concern is the so-called “delayed notice” search warrant. Delayed notice of search warrants is neither new nor unique. It simply allows law enforcement to delay notifying an individual of a judicially authorized search for a reasonable period of time so that an ongoing investigation will not be compromised.
For decades, the Supreme Court and other courts have found these search warrants constitutional and appropriate in cases involving drug dealing and organized crime. Should terrorists and murderers receive greater constitutional protections than drug dealers? Of course not. Delayed notice of search warrants is critical in the terrorism fight. Without the ability to do delayed notice search warrants many investigations would suffer and terrorists would escape.
Finally, the Patriot Act allows for the sharing of information between law enforcement and the intelligence community. Prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, despite the critical need to get intelligence information into the hands of appropriate government personnel, such information sharing between national security officials and criminal investigators was illegal.
The Patriot Act brought down this wall and expressly permits the full coordination between intelligence and law enforcement. In short, the left hand now knows what the right hand is doing and vice-versa. This simply makes common sense.
The indelible image of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon burning against a brilliant blue September sky should be a reminder to us all that the first responsibility of government is to preserve the lives and liberty of the people. The Patriot Act has provided law enforcement with the tools to protect the American people by discovering and preventing acts of terrorism before they occur. Many of these tools are already available to law enforcement for use in tracking down other criminal activity, the Patriot Act now allows these same tools to be used in the war on terror. Armed with accurate information, Vermonters will readily see that the nation needs the Patriot Act.
Finally, I am submitting this letter in my own personal capacity and not as an assistant United States attorney. The views expressed in this letter are mine and do not necessarily express the views of the Department of Justice or the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont.
Thomas D. Anderson lives in South Burlington.