PATRIOT Act Has Major Advantages

Kevin V. Ryan is U.S Attorney for the Northern District of California and former judge on the San Francisco Superior Court. Reply to [email protected]

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In the wake of the horrific events of 9/11, Congress enacted the PATRIOT Act, giving federal law enforcement important tools to combat terrorism. These have been indispensable in protecting Americans while preserving liberties the Constitution guarantees us. But at the end of 2005, a number of the act's most important provisions are scheduled to "sunset." I hope these 16 provisions are made permanent, ensuring that all the necessary legal tools remain available to law enforcement.

Before discussing several of the hotly debated provisions of the act, I want to remind the public of the following:

Every provision that allows for compulsory collection of evidence or searches requires the approval of a federal judge;

Not one civil action has been filed against the government under section 223, which allows citizens to seek damages for any willful violations of the Act;

Since its enactment, 395 people have been charged with terrorism related crimes, leading to over 212 convictions.

One provision scheduled to sunset is Section 215, permitting investigators to apply for court orders to obtain business records relevant to national security investigations. This is nothing new; it has been done for years through grand jury subpoenas. In fact, 215 provides additional protections, notably requiring a federal judge approve every request in advance. This provision cannot be used to investigate ordinary crimes or even domestic terrorism. Also, the Attorney General must report to Congress every six months on its application. Many fear 215 will be used to snoop into the reading habits of law-abiding Americans. As of March 30, no Section 215 order has been issued to any library or bookstore. In fact, 215 bars investigating any citizen for exercising First Amendment rights.

For good reasons, 215 does not exclude libraries from entities that might have to produce records. Congressional testimony has revealed some of the 9/11 terrorists used computers in public libraries just weeks before the attack. We cannot allow libraries to be havens for criminals or terrorists to research, communicate or plan attacks.

Another provision scheduled to sunset is Section 206, which gives law enforcement the ability to use "roving" wiretaps to investigate terrorism. Such wiretaps have been employed for years in drug and organized-crime investigations. They are essential in an era where terrorists, like other criminals, switch cell-phone providers to evade detection. It permits a federal judge to relieve the burden of returning to court every time a terrorism suspect switches phone service.

Another provision that has drawn controversy is Section 213, which authorizes investigators to conduct searches without prior notice to the search target. To conduct a "delayed notice" search, however, 213 requires investigators to demonstrate to a judge that delayed notice is necessary to prevent destruction of evidence, fleeing of a criminal suspect or compromise of an ongoing investigation. Such searches have been standard law enforcement practice for years.

Critics often fail to recognize that the act has served as a powerful and effective tool in the fight against terrorism, and that it was not designed to undermine liberty, but to protect and preserve it.


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