CONGRESS PASSED the USA Patriot Act in haste after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Critics predicted that the act would deal a blow to liberty, while proponents insisted it was essential to the fight against al Qaeda. A wise compromise gave the administration new powers but had them expire at the end of 2005, giving Congress a chance to take a second look. Consequently, various congressional committees are considering whether the Patriot Act should be reauthorized, rolled back or expanded — and whether this time it should be made permanent, as the administration wishes, or renewed only temporarily. Although the Patriot Act has become a catch phrase for civil liberties anxieties, it in fact has little connection to the most serious infringements on civil liberties in the war on terrorism.
It has nothing to do with the detention of Americans as enemy combatants, the abuse of prisoners captured abroad or the roundup of foreigners for minor immigration violations. The law’s key sections were designed to expand investigative powers in national security cases and permit more information-sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. These have sparked controversy more because of abuses they might permit than because of anything that is known to have happened. Indeed, there is little evidence of abuse — and considerable evidence that the law has facilitated needed cooperation. Based on what’s known, it merits reauthorization with minor modifications. (MORE)