Defending our Constitution and our Shores

Commentary by Pete du Pont

On Friday, October 26, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the USA Patriots Act - the anti-terrorism bill. This new law restores many powers of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies controlled by the federal government. These agencies had experienced a dramatic erosion of their respective authorities following the age of Watergate.

As a Member of Congress in the mid-1970s, I had a front row seat as the legislative branch of government exercised its authority and limited the powers of the executive branch in their abilities to investigate and prosecute lawbreakers. Chief among the targets of new limitations was the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice. Both agencies had been used during the Nixon Administration in an elaborate political cover-up that led to the resignation of Richard N. Nixon.

Twenty-five years later, and only after the unspeakable occurred on September 11, the federal government determined that the limitations placed on the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies had diminished the nation's ability to monitor worldwide terrorism planning and execution. The U.S. Department of Justice also had suffered over the past three decades in its ability to use its investigative powers to assist in its prosecutorial responsibilities.

During times of war and worldwide calamity, governments are forced to reassess their security needs and new laws and regulations are enacted, usually in emergency legislative sessions. The weeks following the attacks on the United States followed this historic pattern, with the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department largely calling the shots. The House and Senate took only a matter of weeks to develop legislation designed to protect the inalienable rights of all American citizens, while enacting new laws and regulations that will make life difficult for anyone intending to wage another wave of terrorist attacks on our soil, or on our interests abroad.

The good news is there will be no interment camps for Arab-American citizens, like those erected for Japanese-Americans in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The bad news is that the liberties we take for granted may be somewhat limited until the USA Patriots Act expires in 2006. The U.S. Congress has placed a "sunset" provision on the new powers of the CIA, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Attorney General.

Technologically, much has changed in the United States since 1975, when the crackdown on our intelligence gathering capabilities began. The U.S. government, and unfortunately, terrorist cells, enjoy high tech wizardry unheard of just 15 years ago. Wiretaps, microchip enhanced surveillance devices, smart bombs with lasers, and other James Bondesque novelties have become almost mundane in the 21st century. However, our ability to use them for national defense was limited until now.

America under high-tech domestic surveillance, including irrefutable wiretaps, computer and cellular phone monitoring, amazing face-recognition camera technology, and a network of highly trained and skilled but unseen men and women working undercover worldwide to use any means available to thwart terrorist plots, flies in the face of the tenets of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights...but only on first blush.

We will continue to hear complaints about potential invasions of individual privacy, inconveniences with long lines at security check points at government buildings, sporting events and airports, and the confiscation of our nail clippers and other pointy personal accoutrement, but we are being asked to be patriots and to obey. We have, we are and will we continue to obey these war-induced regulations, probably beyond the sunset provisions due to expire in 2006. [But only to a point.]

No nation has ever successfully waged a worldwide war on terrorism. No one knows where this new endeavor will lead us, or what it will do to our inalienable rights. It's a new century with new threats requiring new laws and a new order. Our survival as a free nation, and our goal of creating a free world, depends on how patriotic Americans rise to the challenge.

For over 200 years, the U.S. Constitution has stood guard against government intrusion into our lives, our religious establishments, and our free press. While we cannot tolerate the 1970s-style erosion of our ability to defend ourselves any longer, maintaining our individual liberties and other protections guaranteed by the U.S. government for its people is our Number One goal. We can never forget this awesome responsibility.