Passing the Patriot Act within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was probably inevitable. The nation was in a near panic and wanted to be assured that federal agents would have the tools they needed to root out dangerous terrorists.
Wisely, Congress built a sunset provision into the law, which gave the nation the time to think about whether it wanted to give up some of the protection from government intrusion that citizens had traditionally enjoyed.
Now, as the Patriot Act comes up for renewal, President Bush is going around the country -- he was in Columbus the other day -- telling the American people how important it is to renew the law.
There is no question that some provisions of the Patriot Act have allowed the government to carry out necessary investigations into dangerous terrorists. But the president is throwing around large numbers that have nothing to do with terrorism, because the Justice Department and the FBI quickly began using all of the powers given to them by the Patriot Act in investigations that had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism or threats of terrorism.
While President Bush was in Columbus talking up extension of the Patriot Act, Deputy Attorney General James Comey was making the administration's pitch before the House Judiciary Committee for giving the FBI dramatically expanded powers.
And after doing so, this is what he said: "The bottom line, I believe, is that the Patriot Act is smart. It's ordinary in a lot of respects. It's certainly constitutional, and we ought to make permanent the provisions that have meant so much to the people that I represent, the men and women in law enforcement and in the intelligence community fighting the fight against terrorism and crimes of all sort."
The italics are ours. Crimes of all sorts.
The FBI is trying to get powers the agency long sought, but had been denied. It wants to be able to issue "administrative subpoenas," which FBI agents would be able to write without going to a judge or a grand jury.
They'd be able to tap phones, conduct a search, go through mail, financial records, medical records, computer files, library records without being held accountable by any outside authority -- or without ever having to notify the people who were objects of those searches. It would give federal investigators the ability to conduct the kind of fishing expeditions that ought to scare Americans.
And remember that all important phrase, crimes of all sorts.
Because while the administration uses the fear of terrorism to make this law more palatable to the American people, it maintains that it is free to use whatever tools it has in whatever investigations it chooses.
Congress has a duty
It is time for Congress, which is supposed to represent the American people, to start doing so and to stop giving the administration anything it asks for in the name of fighting a war on terror.
There is no need to expand the Patriot Act. There ample reason for Congress to take a serious look at how often it is being used to fight terror and how often it is being used in more mundane law enforcement pursuits. There is certainly no reason to make any part of the Patriot Act permanent.
Requiring Congress every four or five years to reassess the dramatic extension of police powers that was granted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is not too much to ask. It's the very least that should be expected in a country that is supposed to put a premium on individual freedoms.