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Ounce of prevention

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

In the ancient Chinese city of Kashgar, near the Afghan border, two men from Portland, Ore., checked into Room 303 of the Chini Bagh Hotel one month after 9/11 and commenced doing chin-ups and planning a jihad. The pair joined four other Portland-area Muslims attempting to unite with al-Qaeda and the Taliban to wage a "holy war" against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Their plans crumbled when Chinese officials closed the border, but the men regrouped in Portland to research attacks on American soil, including possible hits on Jewish synagogues.

Nearly four years later, the terrorist cell known as the "Portland Seven" is dismantled, with six members behind bars for conspiracy to commit war against the United States. (A seventh died in a Pakistani raid on an al-Qaeda training camp.) Justice Department officials credit the Patriot Act with enabling law enforcement to track, monitor, and arrest the five men and one woman who spoke with an FBI undercover informant about making bombs and "cutting off the heads of unbelievers."

The House of Representatives voted last month to renew the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, and the Senate is expected to vote on renewing the anti-terrorism legislation this fall. The measure passed the House by a wide margin (257-171), but the Patriot Act is not without its critics on both sides of the political spectrum who say it threatens civil liberties and hands too much power to the government. Supporters say the legislation threatens only terrorists and gives the government the power it needs to fight a clear and present danger.

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Since Congress passed the Patriot Act after 9/11, Department of Justice officials say the measure has aided law enforcement in breaking up five terrorist cells in the United States and charging some 400 individuals in terrorism-related cases. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales believes the Patriot Act is one reason that there has not been another domestic attack here in the United States.

Provisions in the measure include the use of roving wiretaps that authorize law enforcement to eavesdrop on a terrorism suspect's conversations over any telephone, and the power to obtain warrants to search a suspect's library, medical, business, and other personal records.

Those two provisions raise hackles. The ACLU says the provisions endanger civil liberties and lack checks and balances. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. agrees, and the libertarian CATO Institute charges that "more surveillance equals less liberty." Critics paint an alarmist picture of law enforcement capriciously snooping into the private lives of average Americans.

Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute told WORLD that the Patriot Act has been the target of "the most successful disinformation campaign in recent memory." All surveillance powers in the act require judicial approval before they are used, Ms. MacDonald said. "Unless you have been fraternizing with terror suspects, the chance that you will come under suspicion is virtually zero," she said. The criticism, she believes, represents "paranoia, not rational analysis."

Peter Huessy, senior defense associate at the National Defense University Foundation, agrees: "People believe that 1984 is right around the corner, and that the government is going to use the Patriot Act to take away all our rights and freedoms."

Justice Department officials say there have been no verified civil-liberties complaints against the act to date. Terrorism investigators say the measure allows them to use the same tools already available to investigators of organized crime and drug trafficking. According to James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, "There is nothing constitutionally new in the Patriot Act."

Mr. Huessy emphasizes that Americans shouldn't grow complacent about terrorism, and he disagrees with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who argued against the Patriot Act, saying, "Emergency powers of investigation should not become the standard once the crisis has passed." Mr. Huessy warns that the crisis hasn't passed: "This is a long-term, sustained effort to destroy civilization as we know it. . . . Countries that use terrorism don't take a vacation, and they don't take a time out.

-Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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