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Giving Law Enforcement Some Overdue Tools In the Fight Against Terrorism

It would undoubtedly surprise most Americans to know that despite countless congressional hearings, no major anti-terror legislation has been passed into law since President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act on October 26, 2001 – six weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York.

The Patriot Act was a major step forward, of course, and its provisions have helped dismantle terrorist cells and thwart additional attacks. But it is far from the kind of comprehensive reform of our legal system necessitated by a new universe of threats from radical Islamists willing to forfeit their own lives for a twisted sense of martyrdom. We’re in a whole new world now, fighting a war with an enemy that seeks not just our defeat but our annihilation. These new dangers – like all new challenges – require new tools.

Last week the Senate Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security Subcommittee that I chair held a hearing to review legislative efforts to provide law enforcement authorities with additional legal resources and remove unnecessary obstacles. Of particular focus was S. 2679, the Tools to Fight Terrorism Act (TFTA), which I recently introduced along with several other members of the subcommittee and the Senate leadership.

Over the past several years, congressional committees and executive agencies have conducted extensive reviews of our nation’s antiterrorism safety net, and anyone who reads the daily paper knows we’ve uncovered numerous flaws and gaps. To cite a particularly egregious example, we have found that in many cases anti-terror investigators still have less authority to obtain information than do investigators of other crimes, such as those involving mail fraud.

We have also found that many of the federal code’s criminal offenses are too narrow in scope to account for new contingencies, and that most penalties are far too light to be an effective deterrent. Unlawful possession of a nuclear weapon, for example, carries a maximum penalty of just 10 years in prison. So-called “dirty bombs,” capable of rendering large metropolitan areas uninhabitable for decades, are not even illegal to own.

Among other things, the TFTA would:


  • Allow FBI agents to seek warrants for surveillance of suspected “lone-wolf” terrorists, such as alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui.
  • Improve information sharing among federal agencies and with state and local authorities, avoiding the types of barriers between criminal and intelligence investigators that impeded pre-September 11 searches in the United States for 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
  • Punish hoaxes about terrorist crimes or the death of a U.S. soldier, imposing penalties commensurate with the costs, disruptions and trauma inflicted by such hoaxes.
  • Impose stiff 30-year mandatory-minimum penalties for possession of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, atomic and radiological bombs, and variola virus (smallpox) – penalties stiff enough to deter middlemen who might help terrorists acquire these weapons.

Witnesses at the subcommittee hearing included Professor Jonathan Turley of the George Washington University Law School, a respected constitutional scholar who testified that, in his view, all of the major provisions of the bill would likely withstand a Supreme Court challenge.

The third anniversary of the September 11 attacks serves as a timely reminder of the importance of providing law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. Every provision in this bill has been vetted extensively, and many have been languishing for months if not years. There’s no excuse for Congress not to move quickly to make these improvements to our homeland security, and we must work to pass the bill before we adjourn for the year.