Two years ago on September 11, we all bore witness to the callous viciousness of our terrorist enemies, as well as the devastation they seek to inflict. That day, more than 3,000 Americans lost their lives, and the fight against terrorism became the Justice Department’s first and highest priority.
Thus, when I took office as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California in July 2002, I immediately mandated that the highest priority of my office would be the protection of this district from a terrorist attack. I have instructed my prosecutors to use every legal weapon at their disposal to fight the war against terrorism-particularly the USA Patriot Act.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal group of protesters has been mounting a campaign against the Patriot Act. Swayed by these protesters, a few local city councils have passed resolutions opposing the Patriot Act-including the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approved a measure directing city employees not to cooperate in federal criminal investigations in certain circumstances. Such efforts are largely based on misinformation and threaten to place the community at greater risk.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to pass the Patriot Act: The House of Representatives voted 357 to 66 to approve it, and the Senate approved the legislation by a near-unanimous 98-to-1 vote. From my city and state, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, all Democrats, voted for the Patriot Act.
While the Patriot Act is a key tool in the fight against terrorism, it provided for only modest, incremental changes in the law. The Patriot Act simply took existing legal principles and retrofitted them for the challenges posed by a well-financed and highly coordinated global terrorist network:
Critics of the Patriot Act have created numerous myths about the act that have no basis in either the text of the law or in law-enforcement practice. For example, critics have charged that the FBI is unlawfully visiting local libraries to monitor the reading records of ordinary citizens. The fact is: business records, including library records, have been available to law enforcement for decades through grand jury investigations. (In the investigation of the Zodiac killer, for instance, police suspected that the murderer was inspired by a Scottish occult poet and wanted to learn who had checked the poet’s books out of the library.)
The Patriot Act does not allow federal law enforcement free and unchecked access to libraries, bookstores or other businesses. The act only allows a high-ranking FBI official to ask a federal court to grant an order in specific investigations to “protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” As a safeguard of our liberties, the act expressly bars the FBI from investigating citizens solely based on the exercise of their 1st Amendment rights.
Critics have also claimed that the Patriot Act encourages law enforcement to employ racial profiling and targeting. In fact, the act contains a provision explicitly condemning discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans. The policy of the Justice Department is that terrorism investigations are to be governed by the principle of neutrality. We target criminal conduct, not nationality.
Lastly, some critics have claimed that the Patriot Act deprives Americans of their constitutional rights. To date, however, not a single provision of the act has been declared unconstitutional by any court. The law both before and after the Patriot Act is that a federal judge must approve requests by law enforcement to conduct wiretaps of terrorism suspects or searches and seizures.
As an immigrant to this country, I fully appreciate the unique constitutional rights that America offers her citizens. To this end, I will not tolerate the abuse of anyone’s rights by law enforcement, nor will I accept anything less than the highest standard of ethical conduct by the prosecutors in my office. The protection of all our citizens’ rights and privacy is the principle that guides us; failure to do so renders our efforts meaningless.
The Patriot Act, however, provides important tools that law enforcement can and should employ to fight the war on terror. I will not shrink from my sworn duty to do everything I can within the law to protect my district from terrorist attacks. Peoples’ lives may well be at stake.