September 11, 2006
Disagreements over Patriot Act are broad
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
- Almost five years after its passage, the controversial Patriot
Act continues to elicit debate over whether it was necessary in
the first place and is good for America today.
Congress approved the landmark anti-terrorist legislation weeks
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon. Its goal was to provide more tools to investigators to
thwart terrorist activity.
President Bush, a champion of the law, claims it has helped
authorities foil terrorist plots. Opponents contend it violates
or threatens Americans’ constitutional rights.
The House and Senate reauthorized the legislation, which also
allows for secret searches, with several modifications earlier
Two authorities on the act, Lisa Graves, a senior counsel at the
American Civil Liberties Union, and Brian W. Walsh, a senior
fellow at the Heritage Foundation, weighed in on the pros and
cons of the law.
Graves said the legislation’s worst offense was to weaken
safeguards protecting Americans’ financial records and other
personal data from government searches.
“It changed the rules,” said Graves, a deputy assistant attorney
general in the Clinton Administration.
In the past, she said, investigators could gain access to
financial records, for example, if they obtained an order from a
secret court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Investigators also had to show there were “specific and
articulable” facts linking the records sought to a specific
The Patriot Act, however, allows the FBI to obtain such records
without a court order, and without linking the request to a
suspected terrorist, she said. Under the act, investigators must
make a more general argument that the records are needed for an
Graves contends that is insufficient protection against “fishing
expeditions.” She said the new rules allow investigators “to
stray from the target.”
“It basically makes Americans vulnerable to acquisition and
retention (of records) by the government even if they’ve done
nothing wrong,” she said.
Walsh argues the Patriot Act is necessary because earlier laws
do not provide the tools needed to fight terrorism at a time of
rapid advances in communications and information technology.
FISA, the law created to fight espionage and international
terrorism, “was drafted for a much different environment,” he
said. “It did not contemplate the types of electronic records
that are available today and the ease with which they can be
moved from one place to another.”
Walsh, previously an attorney at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm
in Washington, said expanded access to records is needed to
fight a more sophisticated terrorist.
The Patriot Act “brought us out of the dark ages in the
pre-information age in terms of our intelligence-gathering
abilities and brought us into the information age,” he said.
Terrorists “are not just in caves in Bora Bora planning their
attacks. They’re also in apartments in Manhattan and Miami
planning how to kill people, and they’re using cell phones,
they’re using chat rooms, and they’re using e-mail in order to
do it,” he said.
The roving wiretap provision in the act is an example of how the
law has been brought up to date, he said.
In the past, investigators had to seek wiretap authority for
each phone line “because that’s the way the phone system worked,
(but) it doesn’t work that way any longer,” he said.
The Patriot Act allows investigators to listen in on a suspected
terrorist’s conversations even if the suspect uses a different
phone, laptop computer or other method of communication, as is
While defenders of the law credit it for making the United
States more secure, critics say it threatens hard-earned
“Unless Congress stands up (against the Patriot Act), we have an
erosion not just of congressional power and judicial power and
checks on the president, but we have a real assault on the
fundamental liberties of Americans,” Graves said.
Walsh calls the Patriot Act a balanced law that has helped
prevent another terrorist attack while generating few complaints