Patriot Act’s expiration not a tragedy

Freedom New Mexico

What with Majority Leader Harry Reid’s bill to take over health care dominating Senate debate and discussion this month — and with a need to finalize seven more spending bills, pass another provision increasing the national debt limit, discuss the president’s plan for Afghanistan, and extend highway construction and unemployment programs — there’s an outside possibility that three provisions of the notorious USA Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the year will not be renewed.

That would hardly be a tragedy. In fact, it would be a benefit.

When President Barack Obama was a senator and a candidate, he was an occasional critic of the Patriot Act, passed in haste after 9/11. Now that he is the chief executive and wields the expanded power the act gave the government to spy on Americans, he supports renewing the provisions that give him extra power.

The three provisions in question significantly expand government surveillance power. One allows the government to institute “roving wiretaps,” targeting people who may change phones or get new ones from time to time, without identifying the targets. The normal procedure had been to require the government to identify targets and at least assert that they have some connection to terrorist organizations before such warrants are issued.

A second provision allows the secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to grant warrants for “business records,” ranging from banking to library to medical records. And the “lone wolf” provision allows for electronic monitoring of an individual without showing or even claiming he is part of a terrorist group. The provision has never been used, but the government wants to keep it, anyway.

The evidence that any of these provisions has prevented or deterred a terrorist act is somewhere between slim and none — you can be sure that if they had been useful in helping to identify the handful of would-be terrorist who have been apprehended or prosecuted that government officials would have trumpeted the news.

Without congressional action all of these provisions will expire at the end of the year. If that happened the country would not be significantly more at risk of a terrorist attack – there are plenty of other laws authorizing surveillance — but the public would be less at risk of abuse of power or invasion of privacy.

So if the Senate spends the entire month of December mulling over health care and debt limits and never gets around to renewing these three bits of expanded government power, we would shed no tears.