The first question asked in the Republican Presidential debate last night was on the Patriot Act—and all the candidates got it wrong. The investigative authorities in the act were described (by both candidates who liked the law, those who despised it, and those who wanted to revise it) as something extraordinary—something special for the needs of national security. That is just incorrect. Virtually all the key investigative authorities granted in the Patriot Act – from issuing National Security Letters to roving wiretaps –were around long before 9/11. All the act did was authorized that they be used for investigating crimes related to terrorism. Delayed notification warrants, for example, have been employed many times to go after all kinds of criminals.
It is stunning that a decade after 9/11 so much misinformation about the act still pervades the public debate. Just last week, law enforcement authorities busted the 43rd unsuccessful Islamist terror plot aimed at the U.S. homeland since the September 11 strikes on New York and Washington. Tools like the investigative authorities in the Patriot Act are needed now more than ever.
It is long past time we stop treating the law as some massive departure from the normal exercise of the rule of law in the United States. The only thing exceptional about the Patriot Act is that it has wrongly become the poster-child for senseless debate about freedom versus security. Americans should have both. The act jeopardizes neither. Not having the law would put both at risk.