On This Date: The PATRIOT Act Became Law
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by Causes | 10.25.17
On October 26, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act (better known simply as the PATRIOT Act) into law. The controversial legislation expanded the authority of the federal government to use surveillance technologies in order to prevent future terror attacks in the wake of 9/11.
(If you’re wondering about what the bill’s full acronym stands for, here it is: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. What a mouthful!)
Since its enactment, the PATRIOT Act has been the focal point of a debate between the need for personal privacy and for national security. While many of its original provisions are still in effect, civil liberties advocates have fought successfully for reforms in recent years.
Why did it come up?
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people, the American people and their lawmakers were deeply concerned by the threat of terrorism. The anthrax attacks that began one week later, only added to those concerns.
What did it do?
Members of Congress quickly drafted the PATRIOT Act as a response by combining three existing anti-terrorism bills. The package received a vote in the House just one day after it was introduced on October 23. The House passed the bill with bipartisan support on a 357-66 margin. Two days later, the Senate passed the bill 98-1, with now-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voting in favor. Then-Sen. Russ Feingold (R-WI), who is running for Senate again in Wisconsin this year against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), was the lone dissenter in the upper chamber. President Bush signed the PATRIOT Act into law the following day.
The PATRIOT Act contained 10 sections that were all related to counterterrorism in one way or another. It included provisions aimed at improving domestic security and surveillance, stopping money laundering, securing the border, redefining how criminal law treats acts of terrorism, and improving the nation’s ability to gather intelligence.
The surveillance sections made wiretaps more broadly available through Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (or FISA courts), which were to be used to gather “foreign intelligence information” from Americans and non-U.S. citizens. The law broadened the definition of what information could be collected to include internet addressing and routing information and voicemail, while a related section allowed for the bulk collection of Americans’ communications. The law also authorized any district court judge in the U.S. to issue surveillance orders and search warrants in terrorism investigations.
The surveillance sections of the bill also authorized “sneak and peek” warrants, which allowed authorities to delay notifying the subject of a search warrant that a search had occurred. They also authorized law enforcement to use “roving wiretaps,” which focus on a specific person, rather than a device, allowing authorities to track suspects that may change phones.
What has its impact been?
Many provisions of the PATRIOT Act were initially supposed to sunset in 2005, but Congress reauthorized most of them in their original form in 2006. That set up another reauthorization battle in 2011, this time with President Obama in the Oval Office. Ultimately, Congress and Obama allowed roving wiretaps, surveillance against a non-citizen “lone wolf” terrorist, and court-approved seizures of records and property to continue. The 2011 reauthorization, however, did impose new limits on “sneak and peek” searches and subjected applications for roving wiretaps to a more rigorous approval process.
But the pressure to reform the surveillance program ramped up in 2013, after Edward Snowden leaked classified memos describing the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection programs. Later that year, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) — who introduced the original PATRIOT Act — brought up a new reform bill dubbed the USA FREEDOM Act. The Senate didn’t bring it up for a vote during the 113th Congress, so Sensenbrenner introduced a modified version of the bill in 2015, hoping for a better result.
The 2015 version of the USA FREEDOM Act reinstated roving wiretaps and “lone wolf” surveillance, which lapsed for a total of one day due to Congress’ inaction. But it also reformed the NSA’s bulk data collection programs, following public outcry after the Snowden leaks and a high-profile filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Should the PATRIOT Act have remained unchanged, like some members of Congress proposed? Should it undergo further reforms or be repealed altogether? Hit the Take Action button to tell your reps and share your thoughts in the comments below!
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Kimberlee Hewitt / Creative Commons)
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