January 27, 2006,
As the Senate prepares for a showdown vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, members of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body should deliberate on this: Had it existed, could the Patriot Act have prevented the September 11 massacre?
"I think if the Patriot Act were in place in the summer of 2001 . . . connecting the dots would have been so basic, and easy, and fundamental," says Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9-11 Families for a Safe and Strong America. "With basic detective work, the plot could have been cracked in a matter of days." Her brother, Capt. Charles Burlingame, piloted American Airlines Flight 77 until al Qaeda hijackers presumably murdered him, grabbed the controls, and smashed his Boeing 757 into the Pentagon, killing all 58 passengers and six crew members aboard and another 120 individuals on the ground.
How might the Patriot Act have snared Mohamed Atta and his band of mass murderers?
First, Patriot Act Section 218 would have eliminated "The Wall" that prevented intelligence agents and law-enforcement officials from sharing information. Seemingly fueled by theoretical fears of Big Brother more than the actual dangers of terrorism, President Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, issued restrictions in 1995 that hindered communications between spies and gumshoes. As City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald found, frustrated New York FBI agents placed signs on their desks that read, "You may not talk to me."
Indeed, in August 2001, FBI headquarters barred a New York intelligence agent, who sought hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar, from consulting colleagues on the Bureau's criminal side. "If al-Midhar is located, the interview must be conducted by an intel agent," FBI brass explained by e-mail. "A criminal agent CAN NOT be present at the interview." As former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker noted in a December 31, 2003, Slate column, the New York agent replied that August 29: "Some day someone will die and wall or not the public will not understand why we were not more effective" against terrorists.
Were the Patriot Act in place, "The Wall" would not have prevented Minneapolis FBI agents from getting permission to examine the laptop and possessions of "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui. Had they done so, they might have discovered leads to 9/11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh and Atta's Hamburg cell, which hatched this atrocity.
Second, Patriot Act Section 215, the so-called "library provision," might have led officials to seven of the 19 hijackers who used government libraries for Internet access. Using Section 215, FBI agents might have visited New Jersey's William Patterson University. They might have learned, as the Associated Press' Wayne Parry did last April, that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar used that state institution's computers to purchase tickets online for the flight they plowed into the Pentagon.
Lies to the contrary notwithstanding, the "library provision" does not empower President Bush's "secret police" to round up readers of Annie Proulx's short story, "Brokeback Mountain." Section 215 (which, in reality, does not even mention the word "library") prevents any business establishment or other institution from becoming a safe haven where Muslim fanatics peacefully can plot mass murder.
Third, Patriot Act Section 806 might have allowed federal officials to seize the financial assets of Atta and fellow pilot Marwan al-Shehhi if they suspected terrorist intent. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a nephew of al Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheik Mohammed, sent Atta and al-Shehhi five wire transfers from Dubai totaling $114,500. The Patriot Act might have de-funded the hijackers before they were airborne.
"The Patriot Act would have saved 3,000 lives, and what's scary about that is once they start tinkering with it, it could cost not just 3,000, but tens of thousands of lives," says Debra Burlingame. "September 11 whetted the terrorists' appetites. Now they know the possibilities. There's nothing like success to motivate people."
Whatever the Patriot Act might have achieved before 9/11, it has accomplished plenty since. It has helped prosecutors charge some 401 suspected terrorists, the Justice Department reports, of whom 212 have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Despite this track record, the Patriot Act soon could be consumed in a partisan bonfire.
After successfully spearheading a December 16 anti-reauthorization filibuster, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada bragged, "We killed the Patriot Act." If it prevails, this blindly Bushophobic attitude will return America to the way we were on September 10, 2001: fat, happy, and naked to whatever morning might bring.
Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.