March 12, 2007 3:48PM

FBI and Patriot Act

With all the excitement over the Second Amendment ruling, I’ve hardly had a chance to welcome the scrutiny that is now being directed at the FBI for its illegal use of “national security letters” (euphemism for super‐​special FBI search warrants).

Throughout the debate concerning the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, government people would taunt civil liberties advocates with the line: “Where are the abuses?” We would patiently explain that the new police “tools” (euphemism for powers) were executed in secret. The pols would usually just repeat their mantra in a louder voice, as if secrecy was irrelevant: “But you have not identified any abuses at all!”

Well, more abuses have now come to light and it’s a pleasant surprise that the development is at the top of the news. But we should not be surprised. Look at the incentives. FBI agents get awards and promotions by breaking cases. Agents do not get jailed or fired for skirting the law or disregarding civil liberties. There’s no teeth behind the rules that were broken, just talk (‘We are studying the report … agents may need retraining’). Lawsuits are mostly an expensive experience about futility.

Roll back the Patriot Act. Abolish national security letters. Not because search warrants are perfect–far from it. But the judicial “check” in the search warrant application process is better than relying upon the police to respect the law and our rights.

For related Cato work, go here.