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The Patriot Act: Does it actually work?

Jena Baker McNeill says the law has facilitated the foiling of numerous terrorist plots. Julian Sanchez says some common-sense safeguards for civil liberties need to be adopted.

October 21, 2009

Today's topic: Where can you point to the Patriot Act's success in stopping terrorists? Wednesday through Friday, Jena Baker McNeill and Julian Sanchez discuss the Patriot Act, portions of which Congress is considering reauthorizing.

Point: Jena Baker McNeill

Three alleged terrorist plots have been foiled in recent weeks in three U.S. cities: Dallas, New York and Springfield, Ill. Officials say the cases involved men who, in separate plots, wanted to bomb a federal building, a subway and a skyscraper. Failure to prevent these alleged plots could have had catastrophic results.

But these alleged plots are not the only ones foiled since the 9/11 attacks. In fact, authorities have stopped at least 26 others since Sept. 11, 2001 (and perhaps many more that aren't publicly known). Numerous operatives have been arrested and convicted.

Much of the credit should go to the Patriot Act.

Take, for example, the Lackawanna Six plot that was foiled in 2002. Thanks to certain provisions of the Patriot Act, drug and counter-terrorism investigators were able to share information, a practice that would not have occurred before the law was passed in 2001. Without the Patriot Act, the plot may well have resulted in another 9/11.

These plots weren't foiled thanks to happenstance or sheer luck. While the U.S. does have world-class law enforcement capabilities, investigators can only perform as well as the tools at their disposal allow. One such tool is the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act has helped law enforcement officials apprehend hundreds of suspects, and it isn't just one provision of the act that has proved useful. For instance, the surveillance provision was used successfully in the Portland Seven investigation, which may well have prevented an attack on synagogues and Jewish schools. And while new information is still coming to light about the three recent alleged plots, it is very likely that Patriot Act provisions played major roles stopping at least one of the plans.

Perhaps to the shock of some, the Obama administration has been cool to the idea of repealing the Patriot Act. It may even support keeping key provisions intact. The likely cause of this support: The law works. It's tough to argue with results, especially when American lives are at stake.

There are many misconceptions about what the act actually does. Simply put, it modernizes existing law enforcement tools and practices that existed before the act was passed in 2001. It makes it more difficult for terrorists to stay a step ahead of the law by switching cellphone or e-mail accounts. Its provisions free investigators to stop plots in their earliest stages, decreasing the likelihood that a plan would mature and become unstoppable. It also outlines methods for handling intelligence and investigations in areas the law did not adequately provide for, such as in cyberspace and cellphone communications.

In short, the Patriot Act recognizes that terrorists don't work within bureaucratic flow charts or definitions. Terrorists seek to evade the law, not follow it, and are very creative in their attempts to do so. Law enforcement officials must be able to be dynamic in the face of changing threats while respecting the Constitution. The Patriot Act provides them this capability.

Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

Counterpoint: Julian Sanchez

Well, I'm convinced: Terrorists are bad, wiretapping them is good, and catching them is better still. The Patriot Act should not be "repealed," which I suppose makes it a good thing that nobody is seriously proposing to do so. But as I'd hate to disappoint readers with such a speedy acquiescence, perhaps we should make the debate a little more granular.

The Patriot Act is not really a "tool"; it's a toolbox. And the debate currently unfolding in Congress is not over whether to take the box away; it's about whether and how particular tools can be improved to safeguard civil liberties without unduly burdening terror investigations.

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