A commenter below, responding to my post on the Bush administration’s attempt to claim unlimited war powers, thoughtfully asks, “But the question still remains what would a proper Patriot act look like?” Here’s my brief answer: The problem is not that the federal government lacks ample power to combat terrorist threats, but rather that the government itself is not properly structured to effectively use its powers.
The PATRIOT Act was less of a mistake than the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS was the typical product of Bush administration thinking—they saw a need to do something, and acted with expediency rather than reason. This White House is impatient with the legislative process, and as a result, they tend to favor bad legislation over no legislation. The DHS is a department set-up to fail, which is a shame, because Secretary Tom Ridge is a good political leader who could be put to much better use.
But the real problem, I think, lies with the Justice Department, specifically the FBI. This agency should be abolished. For years—indeed decades—we have heard nothing but reports of the FBI’s ineptitude, secrecy, and lack of institutional accountability. The FBI started as an auxiliary to the DOJ’s law enforcement mission; now it’s been given a central role in counterterrorism activities. This makes no sense. A major component of any counterterrorism strategy must be effectively sharing information with state and local law enforcement, and this goes against the entire organizational culture of the FBI. The Bureau exists to serve the attorney general, not the government as a whole.
My off-the-cuff proposal would be to abolish the FBI, convert the director of central intelligence into a cabinet-level secretary with direct authority over all counterterrorism activities (foreign and domestic), and restrict the DHS to civil defense functions.