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Joe Biden was on an Amtrak train, making his daily commute from Delaware to Washington, D.C., when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. His wife Jill called him as news began to spread of the attacks, and mid-sentence, she interrupted herself. “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God,” she said. “Another plane — the other tower.” Biden made it to Washington and fielded a stream of calls from his family telling him to get away from the Capitol after hearing reports that another plane was heading for Congress. Biden, standing in a nearby park, assured his concerned loved ones that he was safe and that he needed to get to work.
In the hours after the September 11 attacks began, Biden played a key role in organizing fellow lawmakers to convene in emergency sessions. He also spoke to President George W. Bush, advising him to reject advice from his security detail and return to Washington. Biden had spent the first months of the Bush administration strategizing on how he was going to deal with people like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he considered dangerous extremists. Once the attacks happened, Biden told Bush he was at his service. “I’d never seen a single day change the stakes for the country as drastically as 9/11 had,” Biden later recalled. “The way I saw it, this wasn’t just about meeting the challenge of terrorism; it was about taking advantage of an incredible opportunity to improve our internal security and solidify our relations around the world.” Biden said, “I really thought this was the moment we could drive a stake through the heart of the Cheney-Rumsfeld unilateralism.” He was spectacularly wrong. More than that, Biden would aid the very agenda that he claimed to oppose.
Biden was a passionate promoter of the Patriot Act and repeatedly claimed that it was based on his proposals from the 1990s, including the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. He has bragged that he passed earlier surveillance legislation even though “civil libertarians were opposed to it.” And Biden chided his colleagues for not supporting even further-reaching measures that he wanted at the time. “There were those who decided that the threat to Americans was apparently not serious enough to give the president all the changes in law he requested,” Biden said.
In his Senate floor speech on October 25, 2001, Biden said, “The anti-terrorism bill we consider today is measured and prudent.” He boasted that the Patriot Act “contains several provisions which are identical or nearly identical to those I previously proposed.” Biden predicted that the Patriot Act “will not upset the balance between strong law enforcement and protection of our valued civil liberties.” He also said the criticisms of the law from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties groups were “ill-informed and overblown.” From 2001 to 2002, the ACLU gave Biden a lukewarm 60 percent approval rating on civil rights and civil liberties.