It’s easier to scare someone than to persuade him. That must be why opponents of the Patriot Act say so many frightening things. It hides the fact they can’t back up their charges with any examples of actual abuse.
In one case, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent colorful posters to hundreds of libraries. “Attention,” they warned, “under Section 215 of the federal USA Patriot Act, records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents.” Scary thought.
The American Library Association also weighed in, calling parts of the Patriot Act “a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.”
But the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric. As Attorney General John Ashcroft pointed out last month, “the number of times Section 215 has been used to date is zero.”
Think about that. Section 215 has never been used. Not once in two years. This actually seems more like an example of governmental restraint than a cautionary tale about an out-of-control Justice Department.
In fact, despite what you’ve probably heard, our civil liberties may be safer under the Patriot Act. “There are now more protections, including the requirement of a judicial authority to get third-party records such as library records,” former Attorney General Ed Meese, my Heritage Foundation colleague, recently observed. “This is not the ability to go into someone’s home and take their private papers.”
Business records are protected, too. David Zapolsky, associate general counsel for Amazon.com, recently told The New York Times, “the government doesn’t need the Patriot Act to ask for [customer] information. They routinely ask for it simply by filling out a form that says ‘subpoena.’” As Zapolsky notes, those subpoenas usually don’t require a judge’s approval. Patriot Act requests do.
All the Patriot Act really did was take many laws that were already on the books and apply them to terrorism. For example, the government now has the same power to wiretap terrorist suspects that it has long had to wiretap suspected members of organized crime. All these wiretaps, of course, are conducted under a judge’s supervision.
Unlike Patriot Act opponents, who can’t cite examples of abuse, supporters are able to point to specific ways it helps keep us safe. Prosecutors and investigators now can exchange information in ways they couldn’t before Sept. 11. The Justice Department, for instance, says the Patriot Act helped it obtain a criminal indictment of Sami al-Arian, the alleged U.S. leader of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
But such results shouldn’t matter, according to ACLU President Nadine Strossen. As she put it, “what’s so important is that it’s not only librarians and civil libertarians, but many members of Congress, including conservative Republicans, who are saying that this law went too far too fast.”
In other words, what’s important to Strossen is that many people have been frightened into opposing the Patriot Act. Never mind whether they actually have any legitimate reason to be frightened.
But what should be important is whether people truly understand the law, truly understand what the government can do under it (and what the government can’t do), and truly understand how the law makes us safer from terrorists.
Let’s be clear: In more than two years, there hasn’t been a single proven abuse of the Patriot Act. Not one.
The law is working as it was supposed to, by making life more difficult for terrorists. That should help all of us—even the leaders of the ACLU—sleep better at night.