Sales: Who's Afraid of the Patriot Act?

"The Patriot Act is a critical weapon in our struggle against al-Qaeda, and Congress shouldn't unilaterally disarm," says Professor Nathan Sales, commenting in the National Review Online on the House of Representatives' action last week in voting down a proposal to renew expiring parts of the legislation, then reversing course days later.

The sections of the Patriot Act in question simply allow counterterrorism agents to use some of the same tools commonly used in law enforcement, Sales explains, while at the same time they contain elaborate safeguards that prevent abuse and protect civil liberties.

The reauthorization bill passed easily when it was brought back to the floor of the House for a simple majority vote this week, leaving it to the Senate to act prior to the expiration of parts of the Patriot Act at the end of the month.

Who's Afraid of the Patriot Act? National Review Online, February 15, 2011. By Nathan A. Sales.

Finally, there’s the 'lone wolf' fix, for terrorists whose ties to overseas groups may be a bit murky. (This tool wasn’t part of the original Patriot Act; it was added in 2004.)

"The FBI faced exactly this predicament in the weeks before 9/11. Agents suspected that Zacarias Moussaoui — then in custody on immigration charges — was an Islamist terrorist. But they hadn’t yet connected him to al-Qaeda, so they couldn’t search his apartment or laptop. The 9/11 Commission later speculated that, if agents had been able to investigate Moussaoui, they might have unraveled the entire September 11 plot.

"Patriot fixes this problem. It allows investigators to apply for a court order to monitor a suspected terrorist even if they haven’t yet found enough evidence to prove that he’s a member of a foreign terrorist organization.

"Again, the Patriot Act contains robust protections for civil liberties. Investigators can’t start monitoring a lone wolf unilaterally; they must appear before a judge and convince him to authorize the surveillance. Just as importantly, this tool doesn’t apply to American citizens or even many types of aliens. It only applies to temporary visitors to this country — tourists, holders of student visas, and the like."