Today may be a day for terrorists to celebrate.
That’s because provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire, and Congress has been dithering on whether or not to renew portions of the legislation that have been essential in protecting Americans since 9/11.
Yes, Americans have a right to be concerned that the Patriot Act was infringing on their civil liberties by allowing the snoops at the CIA, FBI and NSA to listen in to their phone conversations and peruse their personal emails and texts. The ease with which the U.S. government was collecting data on every phone call and other electronic forms of communication unnerved many Americans, who were beginning to see such surveillance as an encroachment on their cherished civil liberties.
Even many within the NSA and other spy agencies began to have serious doubts as to whether collecting data on every phone call by every American was necessary in combatting terrorism. The FBI recently reported that it couldn’t cite a single case where the bulk data collection of phone records actually prevented an act of terrorism. The danger of the abuse of such information by a branch of government, or of the information falling into the wrong hands had the potential for causing enormous damage to anyone who has made a private phone call.
That point has been well taken by the White House, which is why it’s pushing for passage of the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a less intrusive law than the overreaching Patriot Act. Under the revamped legislation, no longer will federal agencies have the right to collect bulk data on phone calls. Instead, telecommunication companies will be required to maintain those records and will only reveal them to national security agencies if a warrant is provided. That doesn’t mean the information still can’t be abused, but it would be more difficult when more parties are involved in authorizing the use of such data.
Allowing the Patriot Act to expire without passing the Freedom Act makes it ridiculously easy for terrorists to escape surveillance even if there is a warrant that permits wiretapping and access to phone records. If neither provision is in force, federal agencies will require a separate warrant for each and every device in the possession of a terrorist. Such stringent requirements would severely hamstring surveillance operations, making it ludicrously easy for terrorists to buy time by switching phones. Perhaps such a restriction made sense when landlines were the primary form of communication, but it makes no sense now when a terrorist can just go to the nearest drugstore and pick up a new cell phone and number.
In addition, the Freedom Act will allow the government to invoke national security powers against terrorists that are not part of any official terrorist organization, those known as “lone wolf” terrorists. That’s an important provision because many terrorists are not necessarily funded by terrorist groups but have adopted their ideology, making them no less dangerous, but harder to track down. Major Malik Hasan, who murdered 13 people in Fort Hood, didn’t belong to any terrorist group, but subscribed to terrorist ideology on his own.
Despite the lack of evidence that wholesale collection of phone data has done much to disrupt planned terrorist attacks, it’s important to bear in mind that the very fact that the suicide bombers and jihadists of the world know that their calls are being logged and tracked has created a very strong deterrent for them to use electronic devices and has to have made it all that much harder for them to plan and coordinate attacks. The relative calm after 9/11 shouldn’t lull us to believe that terrorists have given up plotting to attack Americans. Indeed, a number of plots during recent years have been foiled in New York City, and the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing reinforces the importance of recognizing that terrorists will kill innocent civilians without any remorse.
Certainly, civil liberties and the right to privacy are among the founding principles on which this nation was built, and it’s a legitimate concern when government has such sweeping powers of intrusion into the private lives of Americans. However, we cannot be so naïve as to believe that if we weaken the powers of U.S. intelligence agencies to perform electronic surveillance, the terrorists will not take advantage of such weakness and use cell phones, social media and email to plan and coordinate attacks. Of course, we have to be vigilant to protect our liberty, but at the same time we have to prevent the terrorists from abusing that liberty to commit murder and mayhem.