Targeting the Patriot Act
By Sen. John Cornyn 12/20/05
The Senate's failure to re-authorize the USA Patriot Act over the weekend due to filibuster was a critical failure to provide law-enforcement agencies the vital tools necessary to fight and win the war on terror. Such action compromises the safety of the American people, undermines the progress we have made since September 11 and delays critical investigations.
A minority of senators has stopped reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act. This minority insists on imposing its will on a bipartisan majority of the Senate, the House and the president of the United States. In effect, these few politicians are willing to jeopardize the safety of the American people because they are unwilling to accept the compromise agreed to by both houses of Congress, despite efforts from all other quarters to do so. Most reasonable people would agree that it is a practical impossibility for each legislator to get everything he or she wants in these negotiations. That doesn't mean the American people should be left with nothing.
The American people deserve honest discourse, not filibuster and delay. The Patriot Act has served our national security in a way that is both consistent with our national values and with the protection of civil liberties — in fact, the war on terror must be waged in a manner consistent with American principles.
The hysteria over this legislation (and the fact that people have in too many instances not focused on the hard-fought attempts to balance security with civil-liberty concerns) is a disservice to the American people. This debate does not concern a typical policy disagreement sometimes had over taxes or other issues — the stakes are so much higher.
The failure to reauthorize the Patriot Act returns Americans to the protections of September 10th tools. Law-enforcement officials cannot be blamed for their failure to "connect the dots" if the Senate has failed to provide the tools to connect them.
Key members of Congress and the administration reached an agreement earlier in the month that would extend the important law-enforcement and anti-terrorism tools that would otherwise expire at the end of the month. Unfortunately, this critical legislation — which has played no small role in preventing another act of terrorism on American soil — has not always been the subject of an intellectually honest, responsible or fair debate.
The Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 by overwhelming bipartisan margins: 98-1 in the Senate, and 357-66 in the House. At that time, senators on both sides of the aisle agreed that this legislation struck a careful and wise balance between national-security interests and protection of civil liberties.
The legislation enjoys a successful track record. In addition to helping prevent any terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11 and playing a crucial role in the dismantling of several terrorist cells within the United States, the Department of Justice inspector-general has consistently found no systematic abuses of any of the act's provisions.
There centagreement reached by the House and Senate conferees, reflected in a draft conference report, both preserves the provisions that have made America safer since September 11 and increases congressional and judicial oversight — which should alleviate the concerns of those who believe the law-enforcement tools endanger civil liberties.
In addition to the enhanced protections for citizens' rights, the agreement preserves fundamental open-government principles. Of course, a system of open government is one of the most basic requirements of any healthy democracy, and therefore, securing the country and protecting civil liberties need not be a zero-sum proposition. While America's national security should never take a back seat, it also should not be used to prevent taxpayers from knowing how their government is operating — nor about how it will protect them from terrorism.
The House-Senate draft agreement strikes the right balance here as well. While preserving existing authorities, the draft conference report adds significant safeguards respecting their use. It not only continues the sunsets on the roving-wiretap and business-record provisions, but it also adds significant new safeguards to both provisions by requiring high-level approval for their use. Additionally, it requires enhanced reporting to Congress on actual use of these authorities, increasing the likelihood of both detecting and correcting any issues of concern.
Finally, it calls on the inspector-general to audit the use of controversial provisions, includes additional reporting requirements to Congress on other provisions of the act and requires the Department of Justice to report to Congress on any data-mining activities. These additional safeguards will help ensure both necessary protections of Americans' rights, while also promoting the open-government principles we espouse.
This important, bipartisan agreement continues all of the important law-enforcement provisions enacted following the September 11 attacks, as well as implementing responsible changes that provide for more oversight to protect against potential civil-liberty concerns. It strikes the right balance of providing for our national security and providing enhanced sunshine on how those provisions are used. The Senate should no longer tolerate such harmful delay tactics; it should reauthorize this legislation immediately.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He served previously as attorney general of Texas and as a state Supreme Court justice.