February 11, 2011 7:14AM

The Heritage Foundation on the Patriot Act

If you wonder why House Republicans were so keen on ramming through an extension of the Patriot Act without hearings or debate, take a gander at the Heritage Foundation's blog post and Web memo on the topic. I want to run through the latter in some detail, because I think it's telling just how poorly the case against reform stands up to scrutiny in the rare instances when the law's defenders feel obliged to make an argument more sustained than "Boo! Terrorists!" 

Here's how they begin:

With at least 36 known plots foiled since 9/11, the United States continues to face a serious threat of terrorism. As such, national security investigators continue to need these authorities to track down terror leads and dismantle plots before the public is in any danger. These three amendments—which have been extensively modified over the years by Congress and now include significant new safeguards, including substantial court oversight—are vital to this success.

I've debated co-author Jena McNeil Baker on Patriot a few times, and she invariably leads off with a running tally of foiled terror plots. I'm not sure exactly which cases make her current list, but in the past she's cited yahoos like the Lackawanna Six, who don't appear to have had any actual plot to dismantle, and since our last exchange the FBI has augmented the count via its innovative strategy of planning terror attacks for itself to foil.

But let's all agree the terror threat is real and serious even without this sort of inflation. What evidence do the authors have that any of the three expiring authorities were "vital" in any of those cases? There just isn't any. Even if it were true, the authors would have no basis in the public record for the assertion. The evidence we do have, however, suggests just the opposite. Lone Wolf has never been used, so it certainly wasn't vital. FISA roving authority has been granted an average of 22 times per year since Patriot, and in many of those cases, investigators found they didn't end up needing to use it. And none of the reports I can recall reading on apprehended wannabe-terrorists suggested that they were practicing sophisticated countersurveillance tactics. The Office of the Inspector General couldn't find any major case developments attributable to 215 business record orders, which also don't seem to be used that frequently.

If one of the sunsetting powers had played an important role in disrupting a concrete plot or attack, though, you'd think Justice Department officials would have every incentive to say so loudly and unambiguously, even if they couldn't get into operational specifics. While these facts are suggestive, of course, I can't say with certainty that the two powers that have actually been used definitely didn't play a vital role in any of those (let's be generous) 36 cases. It would be more convenient if I could say so, but I'm at something of a disadvantage here: In the absence of evidence, I lack the panache needed to make whatever sweeping assertions would help my position. I can only say that all the evidence we do have cuts against that bold claim.

We move to roving wiretaps, which we're told are a "garden variety" surveillance tool used "routinely" in criminal investigations. The authors seem to be operating with highly idiosyncratic definitions of those terms: In 2009, there were 2,376 wiretap warrants issued for criminal investigations, of which 16 were roving. But routine or not, pretty much everyone in fact agrees that roving authority should be available for intelligence investigations. Astonishingly, the Heritage memo never even mentions the actual issue civil libertarians have with this provision: that unlike the parallel criminal authority, it permits roving warrants that don't name an individual target. So the authors spend five paragraphs mounting an irrelevant defense of a power nobody contests in principle, but never informs their readers about the real point of controversy, let alone argue for the asymmetry.

Next, business record orders. The blog post summarizing the Web memo confusingly claims that there was no FISA authority to compel the production of records before Patriot, which isn't true. There just had to be some factual basis (not even "probable cause") for thinking the records belonged to a terrorist or foreign agent. Oddly, while the Heritage memo does reference Patriot's expansion of the types of records that could be obtained, it fails to mention the elimination of this key requirement—which, again, is precisely the change to which critics have objected. We're also told that heightened standards apply to demands for records that "might have the slightest relation to freedom of speech and expression," which is ridiculous. Library and bookstore records get a bit more protection because librarians raised an admirable fuss about this provision, but there's no similar protection for records of people's online reading habits, which have at least as much bearing on modern speech and expression as someone's library borrowing. There's the usual analogy between this authority and prosecutorial or grand jury subpoenas, but (perhaps you're noticing a pattern here) the big, glaring difference between them is not even mentioned: Those processes are ultimately public, and that publicity serves as the strongest practical check on prosecutors who might be tempted to sweep too broadly, while giving third-party record holders a far stronger incentive to challenge improper requests on behalf of their customers.

By the time we get to Lone Wolf, it feels like they're not even trying anymore:

While the FBI has confirmed that this section has never actually been used, it needs to be available if the situation arises where a lone individual may seek to do harm to the United States.

Why can't they use the same criminal authority they're forced to rely on when a lone individual who's a citizen seeks to do harm to the United States? Why are the extraordinary breadth and secrecy of FISA surveillance, designed for dealing with state-sponsored espionage agencies and global terror networks, necessary when the adversary is some guy acting alone? Crickets.

Finally, we get these two howlers in the conclusion:

Little evidence has ever been proffered to demonstrate any PATRIOT Act misuse.... The act has been narrowed and refined continuously, contributing to the fact that no single provision of the PATRIOT Act has ever been found unconstitutional.

Now, as it happens, both of those claims are pretty clearly false. Federal courts have, in fact, found the gag provisions of the National Security Letter statutes to be unconstitutional—though the court opted to impose its own set of requirements rather than voiding the statutes outright. As for misuse, I'll defer to the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, who characterized the FBI misuse of that authority uncovered by his office as "widespread and serious."

But these are, in any event, absurd standards. Covert surveillance whose targets are never informed about it turns out to be rather difficult to challenge in court—harder still when the government can assert a state secrecy privilege that prevents courts from reaching the merits of the challenges that do arise. The identification of rule violations mostly relies on self-policing by intelligence agencies—which report plenty, though they often take their sweet time about it. More importantly, if the intended use of these authorities is to allow the government to siphon up vast amounts of information about thousands of mostly innocent Americans, and retain that information forever in massive classified databases, focus on "misuse" is something of a red herring. The "correct" use is too intrusive.

So this is what the best case for Patriot reauthorization without reform looks like, apparently: bold assertions offered without supporting evidence, and a persistent refusal to engage the actual objections raised by critics. No wonder they're so anxious to bypass a debate.