Patriot Act Has Never Been More Important
The protection of our liberties and homeland are not mutually exclusive
by John Cornyn on May 20, 2015 at 9:18 AM
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans began to look at our national security in a different light. No longer were the lines of battle neatly drawn and enemies easily identified. In the 21st century, threats would be constantly evolving and growing even more complex.
The crisis in Syria and Iraq has illustrated just how dangerous these threats are, both abroad and at home. In February, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center estimated more than 20,000 foreign fighters had joined the Islamic State or other related groups in Syria — among them, some 3,000 were from Western countries. More than 150 were from the United States.
Today, those who can’t travel to the Middle East are offered another option by terrorist recruiters abroad: Pick up your weapons and fight where you are.
Earlier this month, FBI Director James Comey described the widespread nature of this threat, noting that the FBI is working on hundreds of investigations across the country. According to Comey, all 56 FBI field divisions have open inquiries regarding suspected cases of homegrown terrorism. Sadly, we saw this type of Islamic State-inspired terror play out in Garland two weeks ago. Thanks to quick action by law enforcement, innocent lives were spared this time.
As your elected representative in Washington, one of my responsibilities is to make sure our intelligence and law enforcement officials are equipped to fight those who want to harm us.
One tool used to effectively disrupt terrorist networks inside our borders is the Patriot Act.
Three key provisions of the act are set to expire at the end of the month, including a section that allows the National Security Agency to access certain types of data, such as phone records. I believe our national security will be put at greater risk if the provisions are allowed to expire.
Some have raised privacy concerns regarding these provisions. But the protection of our liberties and homeland are not mutually exclusive. For instance, the business records provision commonly referred to as Section 215 uses a vigorous oversight system and strict safeguards to ensure that the rights and freedoms of Americans are not jeopardized.
First, the NSA must seek approval by a special court to receive call records from telephone companies. For the court to approve this request, the NSA must show reasonable grounds that the records are relevant to an authorized investigation. These records include only the most basic information, such as the phone numbers, the dates and times of calls and their duration. It does not include private information, such as the names or addresses attached to those numbers. And, importantly, it includes no content of the conversation. The NSA has no ability to listen to phone calls under this provision.
Second, for the NSA to search the database, it must go through even more controls. For example, it must demonstrate to the same court that there is a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the phone number is associated with a terrorist. If the NSA believes the phone number belongs to someone who intends to attack our country, the agency must go back to the court yet again to be granted additional authority, under different laws, to surveil the individual.
The intelligence community has a vital role to play in safeguarding our nation. I believe the Patriot Act provides our intelligence community and law enforcement with the tools they need to operate effectively to protect all Americans, while using appropriate checks and balances to ensure our rights remain intact.
Many intelligence experts have said the Patriot Act makes the United States safer today than we were pre-9/11. By maintaining strong oversight of these and other government programs, we can have a win-win situation that protects both American lives and American liberties.