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Congress Must Act to Protect Key Provisions of the Patriot Act

Washington, Dec 16 -

by Congressman Michael Turner
                
In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, legislation that gave law enforcement authorities and the intelligence community many important tools to investigate terrorist threats directed at harming innocent Americans. While the intelligence community is still modernizing their capabilities, this Act took several important steps toward modernizing existing law to vigorously address the challenges of fighting terrorism.  Much of the success we’ve had in combating terrorism over the last eight years has been due to key improvements in laws that have allowed investigators and prosecutors to share vital information about terrorist plots that threaten our national security.  

Recent news accounts of several terrorist plots foiled by law enforcement agents show that threats to our national security remain.  In Dallas, a terrorist suspect was charged with the attempt to blow up a downtown skyscraper.  In New York City and Denver Colorado, the FBI was able to thwart the detonation of a bomb in the United States.  In addition, in Boston, a man was charged with conspiring to attack civilians at a shopping mall, American soldiers at home and abroad, and two members of the Executive Branch of our government.  While this man was unable to acquire the necessary weapons to implement his attack, authorities allege that this suspect had multiple conversations about how he would carry out his plan.

While many provisions in the USA Patriot Act have improved the intelligence community’s ability to share information between the 16 intelligence agencies, the recent Fort Hood incident makes it clear that improvements still need to be addressed.  Currently, the intelligence community is conducting an investigation into this case and how we can improve our intelligence capabilities in tracking potential threats.

Nonetheless, these proactive measures by law enforcement authorities provide a constant reminder about the continued terrorist threats that face all Americans and how key provisions in the USA Patriot Act give our law enforcement officials the resources they need to aggressively track down and prevent these security threats from ever taking place.

In 2006, with strong bipartisan support, Congress decided to make permanent 14 of the 16 original provisions of the USA Patriot Act while also passing additional legislation to provide extra safeguards to ensure the protection of our civil liberties.  However, the sections of the USA Patriot Act that were not made permanent were extended for an additional four years and are now set to expire on December 31, 2009.  Without congressional action to fully extend these important provisions, we will effectively tie the hands of our law enforcement authorities and limit their ability to investigate possible future terrorist attacks.

The sections of the USA Patriot Act that must be extended in order to continue giving our country’s intelligence community the tools they need to keep America safe include: court orders for “roving” wiretaps; the acquisition of business records; and an additional provision added in a later version of the law that allows the surveillance of what are referred to as “lone wolf” terrorist suspects.

One of these provisions, Section 206, authorizes Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA Court) with probable cause to install “roving” wiretaps for foreign intelligence investigations.  A “roving” wiretap order authorizes intelligence agents to follow a suspected terrorist rather than targeting just one particular phone or computer.  In addition, the Act ensures enhanced congressional oversight over the use of these foreign intelligence electronic devices to protect the civil liberties of our citizens.

Another provision, Section 215, authorizes the Director of the FBI to apply to the FISA Court for access to any tangible information including books, records, papers, and other documents for international terrorism and foreign intelligence cases.  Like Section 206, the Act contains provisions to guard against any abuse of power through enhanced congressional oversight, greater procedural protections, more elaborate application requirements, and a judicial review process.

Last, the Act made changes to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, that defines an “agent of foreign power” to include any person, other than a U.S. citizen, who “engages in international terrorism or activities in preparation therefore.”  This provision ensures that these “lone wolf” terrorists are subjected to foreign intelligence surveillance standards despite not being an agent of a foreign government or a recognized international terrorist organization.

The USA Patriot Act has played a key role in providing for the safety and security of our nation by aggressively targeting suspected terrorists who would do harm to all Americans.  The most recent foiled terrorist plots are proof that national security concerns are still real.  The Fort Hood incident also indicates that while collaboration within the intelligence community has been improved by this Act, changes still need to be made.  However, without full reauthorization of this Act by the end of the year, these key provisions will expire and limit our law enforcement community’s ability to investigate and apprehend suspected terrorists before they strike.  Any bill that weakens America’s anti-terrorism laws will surely make the U.S. more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks.  

Congress must act now to make permanent the rest of the provisions in the USA Patriot Act that have helped combat terrorism.