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America is at war; a war that, so far, most Americans do not realize is bigger, harder and longer than any other conflict this nation has faced in its history. It is a war on international terrorism, which we as a nation must commit to use every available tool to defeat.
Since that tragic day two years ago, America has skillfully employed several legal capabilities to great effect. Overseas, our military force has successfully disrupted the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan and has removed the raping, looting and murdering regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Within the United States, the Department of Homeland Security has made great strides in securing our borders and preparing first responders in the case of another domestic attack.
Yet, while we have achieved great success in these areas, we must ensure that the legal tools provided are not abused, and indeed, that they do not undermine the very foundation our country was built upon.
The USA Patriot Act, enacted shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, gives intelligence and law enforcement agencies a significantly increased ability to combat terrorism. While I applaud the great successes of the Patriot Act in aiding law enforcement and intelligence agencies, agencies that have successfully disrupted terrorist plots and cells within the United States, I strongly believe the Patriot Act was not created to be used in crimes unrelated to terrorism.
Recent reports, including one from the General Accounting Office, however indicate that the Patriot Act has been employed in investigations unconnected to terrorism or national security.
In our battle against those that detest our free and prosperous society, we cannot sacrifice any of the pillars our nation stands upon, namely respect for the Constitution and the rule of law. Our enemies in the war against terrorism abuse the Islamic law known as the Sharia that they claim to value. It is perversely used as justification for their horrific and wanton acts of violence.
We must demonstrate to the world that America is the best example of what a solid Constitution with properly enforced laws can bring to those who desire freedom and safety. If we become hypocrites about our own legal system, how can we sell it abroad or question legal systems different than our own?
I strongly believe Congress must act now to rein in the Patriot Act, limit its use to national security concerns and prevent it from developing “mission creep” into areas outside of national security.
Similarly, if prosecutors lack the necessary legislation to combat other serious domestic crimes, crimes not connected to terrorism, then lawmakers should seek to give prosecutors separate legislation to provide them the tools they need, but again not at the expense of civil rights. But in no case should prosecutors of domestic crimes seek to use tools intended for national security purposes.
This war against terrorism requires Americans and American institutions to have the “courage to be safe,” this courage must include keeping to the American principles that have made this country great for more than 200 years.
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, is a senior fellow at AEI.
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