Reality Check: Has the Patriot Act thwarted 42 terror attacks?

Published: Dec. 8, 2011 at 3:27 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 9, 2011 at 1:10 AM EST
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(FOX19) - It was the lead off question of the CNN Republican debate focusing on national security: Shouldn't we keep and even strengthen the Patriot Act?

A number of candidates answered the question.  To analyze those answers, we are going to do this Reality Check in 2 parts.

Let's start with the question that was asked by Ed Meese of the Heritage Foundation. He asked at the debate, "At least 42 terrorist attacks aimed at the United States have been thwarted since 9/11. Tools like the Patriot Act have been instrumental in finding and stopping terrorists. Shouldn't we have a long range extension of the investigative powers contained in that act?

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman didn't really answer the question.  For those who did, there were only two sides.

On one side, Texas Congressman Ron Paul says he is against what he calls the unconstitutional reach of the Patriot Act.

On the other side, all the other Republican candidates who essentially agreed with one another that the Patriot Act is not only necessary but needs to be made stronger.

"I'd look at strengthening it, because I think the dangers are literally that great," said Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Texas Governor Rick Perry agreed, saying "We need to keep the Patriot Act and strengthen it if necessary and update it with new technologies as they come along."

The voice of dissension was Texas Congressman Ron Paul who said, "I think the Patriot Act is unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty…Today it seems too easy that our government and our congresses are so willing to give up our liberties for our security."

When I started looking at the candidates answers, it got me thinking.  Not about their answers, but about the question.

Is Ed Messe asking a legitimate question?  Has the patriot act thwarted 42 terror attacks?

The answer is no.

I looked for 42 instances from the Heritage foundation. While I couldn't find it, I did find a list from 2010 of what Heritage says are 30 instances of terror thwarted since 9/11.

But among those 30, very few can be traced back to the Patriot Act as a source for prevention.

In only about half were cases were arrests made.  For instance, September 2009, the feds arrested Naji-bullah Zazi and at least four others.  They were arrested for purchasing chemical explosive materials allegedly to bomb the New York subway system.

Under the Patriot Act, law enforcement was able to use roving wire taps to catch these guys.

The majority of cases on this Heritage list however, were not law enforcement victories, they were simply failed attacks.

For instance, shoe bomber Richard Reid.  His shoe bombs simply didn't detonate.  The Patriot Act powers didn't stop him from trying.

The same thing happened with the Christmas Day underwear bomber.  He was attacked by passengers on his flight when his bomb didn't detonate.

The list was compiled before the would-be Times Square bomber who was stopped, not by the Patriot Act, but by his own incompetence.

While the Patriot Act may have intercepted plans for several attacks, it also failed to prevent 1 successful attack: Major Nadal Hassan at Fort Hood.  Hasan opened fire on post at Ft. Hood, Texas where he killed 12 people and injured 30 others.

Here's What You Need To Know:

It is very difficult to quantify how well the Patriot Act has worked in preventing terror attacks, especially when you find that in many of these plots that were broken up the Feds bated suspects, offered in many cases to buy weapons or explosives, and then once that suspect agreed to take part in the plot, they were arrested.

Under the Patriot Act, that isn't entrapment, it's the war on terror

And that is Reality Check.

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