This week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are set to vote on reauthorization of three key counterterrorism provisions—two found in the PATRIOT Act and one in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. These provisions include:
- Roving surveillance authority, which is used by investigators, working within the law, to track a suspected terrorist as he or she moves from cell phone to cell phone.
- Business records orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, where business records and similar items are required to be disclosed without a terrorism suspect’s knowledge.
- The “lone wolf” provision that allows law enforcement to track non-U.S. citizens acting alone to commit acts of terrorism that are not connected to an organized terrorist group or other foreign power.
Without legislative action, all three provisions are set to expire—setting up a big problem for law enforcement and intelligence personnel in terms having the right tools to stop terrorism in the future.
During debate, there will undoubtedly be many arguments that amendments are needed in order to “protect from potential abuses.” This means adding a new round of bureaucratic hoops for investigators to go through before they can actually use the provisions to stop terrorism. Senator Pat Leahy’s (D–VT) USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 is one example. It would create more onerous standards for accessing business records that could potentially hamstring the process.
Members advocating such alterations of the current provisions will argue that such reforms are absolutely necessary to maintain civil liberties. However, these three provisions have been extensively modified in the years since 9/11 with more and more safeguards, including substantial court oversight, appeals, limited application for authorities (including legal thresholds such as “probable cause” for the use of roving surveillance authority), reporting requirements, and congressional oversight. For example, Section 215 protects civil liberties by requiring additional approval for document requests that might have the slightest relation to freedom of speech and expression, such as library records.
In this way, current provisions have sufficient safeguards to ensure that the rights of Americans are not infringed upon, while giving law enforcement the ability to provide for our common defense. Congress should not get caught up in the myths and hype. The necessity for tools like the PATRIOT Act in combating acts of terrorism, coupled with the act’s numerous safeguards meant to ensure protection of civil liberties, makes reauthorization an obvious choice.