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The Patriot Act: Looking back to 2001

Jena Baker McNeill says the Patriot Act was long overdue before the 9/11 attacks. Julian Sanchez says we need an analysis of the trade-offs that come with increased surveillance powers.

October 23, 2009

Today's topic: In hindsight, did Congress and the president react too hastily in 2001 by passing the Patriot Act just weeks after the 9/11 attacks? Did the revisions in 2005 adequately address concerns that the act went too far or didn't go far enough? Jena Baker McNeill and Julian Sanchez finish their debate on the Patriot Act, key provisions of which Congress is considering reauthorizing.

Point: Jena Baker McNeill

Let's stop rehashing the birth of the Patriot Act and start talking about preventing terrorist attacks in 2010 and beyond.

We all agree that Congress and the president are obligated to protect Americans against attacks by foreign enemies. After the 9/11 attacks, this duty was crystal clear. What was also clear is that suppressing terrorism could not be achieved by military means alone.

The 9/11 hijackers started a war, but they didn't plan their attacks aboard a military vessel, use traditional weapons or bring an army with them. Their weapons were the everyday luxuries in our society -- our cellphone networks, our hotels, our restaurants and our planes.

I would argue that we did not enact the Patriot Act too quickly after Sept. 11, 2001; in fact, the law's provisions were long overdue. As the 9/11 Commission stated, "The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise."

There were several warnings: the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident, in which Al Qaeda operatives helped Somalis bring down U.S. helicopters, the 1995 Riyadh car bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers attacks and the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Don't forget the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole in 2000 and the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. These were acts of terrorism; still, our law enforcement practices were left relatively unchanged.

Sure, we could have kept the same legal practices and probably foiled some post-9/11 plots. But evidence suggests that we probably wouldn't have stopped all of them without the Patriot Act. A world without the Patriot Act would have extended the "period of darkness," described by former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey, that comes with a lack of information sharing between law enforcement agencies. This refers to the time spent obtaining new warrants whenever a terrorist tosses a cellphone and when investigators are effectively prohibited from tracking suspects.

It surely is no coincidence that we haven't had a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2001. Remember back to the time immediately after the 9/11 attacks: The consensus was not if another strike would occur, but when. The thought that more than eight attack-free years and counting would ensue would have seemed almost unthinkable then. All it takes is one attack to kill thousands of innocent citizens and shake America's confidence to the core -- and the Patriot Act has helped us ensure that no plot has come to fruition.

To go back to the question posed to us today, the option in 2001 of doing nothing was a non-starter and would have put us at risk.

This is not to say the Patriot Act is perfect. Sure, we can ponder whether the law should have included more provisions or fewer and whatever else different members of Congress would have preferred. We can debate whether the 2005 changes were needed or not. But this does not make the Patriot Act bad legislation. Investigators have proved that the act can be successfully implemented in a way that respects civil liberties. The 26-plus foiled plots speak for themselves.

I would argue that there are more important questions to be asking ourselves about counter-terrorism heading in 2010. For example, how can we make the U.S. Department of Homeland Security more dynamic, integrated and seamless? What about starting a Homeland Security initiative to integrate the anti-terrorism efforts of state and local governments, the private sector, our allies around the world and Washington?

The Patriot Act has made us better fighters. If we ask the right questions, we can improve even more.

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

Counterpoint: Julian Sanchez

Let's be honest: None of us were in much mood for cool deliberation in the weeks immediately following 9/11. Under the best of circumstances, it would have been a feat to get everything right in a 300-page bill that makes dramatic changes to dozens of complex national security statutes. In the panicked aftermath of a horrific terror attack, it would have been nothing short of miraculous. So you'll have to forgive me, Jena, if I'm more interested in looking back to see where a better balance could have been struck in light of what we now know.

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