If you've seen The Godfather, Scarface or The Sopranos, you're familiar with the routine: Federal agents know who the crime bosses are, and what crimes are being committed. But the rules are strict, so there isn't much they can do about it.
We accept these restrictions when dealing with wiseguys involved in loan-sharking, prostitution, gambling - even drug dealing. But are you really willing to accept the same paradigm for terrorists? Is it okay if, say, the top New Jersey-based agent for Osama bin Laden waves to the FBI agents in their car outside his house - confident they can't touch him as he goes about his business?
In fact, those now opposing the Patriot Act are arguing not only for such limitations on law enforcement - they are arguing for far tighter restrictions.
The basic idea behind the Patriot Act is simple: Give those investigating terrorism the same tools already used by those going after mobsters and drug lords. The Patriot Act does not give the government more tools or allow laxer standards for investigations.
For example, it is true, as The New York Times complains, that sections of the Patriot Act “expand the government's power to conduct secret searches and wiretaps.” But does the Times really believe the government should not have the power to search the homes of terrorist suspects – as it has the power to search mobsters' homes?
Or is the fact that the FBI can search secretly that troubles the Times? If so, consider: How long would evidence – anthrax or rincin, for instance -- remain on a terrorist's premises if FBI agents were obligated to phone ahead to say they were dropping by with a search warrant? And don't be misled: Under the Patriot Act, a search warrant is required and must be granted by a federal judge. Is that really “a threat to civil liberties” or a “serious excess” as the Times says?
And as for wiretaps, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DEL) has put it well: “The FBI could get a wiretap to investigate the Mafia, but they could not get one to investigate terrorists. To put it bluntly, that was crazy! What's good for the mob should be good for terrorists.”
What about ordering libraries to hand over records? Again, the FBI can do that now to learn what their local drug dealers are reading. The Patriot Act enables the government to do the same to terrorist suspects – but first a federal judge must determine that the information is relevant to an investigation of international terrorism or foreign spying.
The Patriot Act also allows law enforcement agencies to share information with intelligence agencies. That was not permitted before the Patriot Act. The answer to the 9/11 intelligence question: “Why did no one connect the dots?” is this: It was forbidden for the FBI and the CIA to share their dots.
It's true, too, as the Times notes, that a federal judge “has just struck down, as unconstitutionally vague, the act's ban on giving advice and assistance to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations.” That means that Congress should be less vague and more specific about what is to be banned. It doesn't mean – as the Times says – that the entire Patriot Act is “constitutionally suspect” or even that any such a ban would violate constitutional rights. How would you react if you saw Chris Mathews interviewing a biological weapons advisor to al Qaeda – who would say: “Chris, I have a constitutional right to advise any group I want about anything at all.” Would you say, “Yep, I'm sure that's the way Tom Jefferson would have wanted it”?
Some people cannot grasp the difference between fighting gangsters and fighting terrorists. For those so challenged, here it is in a nutshell: Organized criminals are rational. They want to make money and they want to stay alive. By contrast, terrorists are not interested in getting rich, and suicide-terrorists look forward to their deaths -- so long as they have an opportunity, in the process, to murder you, your children and your neighbors.
Who would help them by repealing the Patriot Act? The American Civil Liberties Union, a handful of libertarian Republicans and, most likely, those Democrats who applauded when President Bush said in his State of the Union that the Patriot Act expires in 2005.
Others did not. For example, Sen. Biden has been clear and principled: “I stand by my support of the US Patriot Act,” he said not long ago. Much of the criticism against it, he added, “is both misinformed and overblown.”
And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has said: “I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported me. My staff e-mailed the ACLU and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They e-mailed back and they had none.” Similarly, an investigation this month ((1/27/04)) by the Department of Justice's Inspector General – a Democrat appointed by President Clinton -- found exactly zero civil liberties abuses under the Patriot Act.
In America today, you accept a certain level of lawlessness. Are you willing to accept a similar level of terrorism? Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have had not a single successful terrorist attack on American soil. The Patriot Act is probably one of the reasons why. But if you want to test that proposition, The New York Times, the ACLU and many of the politicians seeking your vote in November have an offer they think you can't refuse.