Government and Politics

Office of Homeland Security

What is the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act is a controversial law passed by a wide majority of Congress and signed by President George W. Bush (1946–) in October 2001; it was designed to strengthen national security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The legislation relaxes federal surveillance laws, granting authorities broad leeway to gather information on U.S. citizens and resident foreigners. It also expands the government’s prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists and their associates. The complex act, which contains 168 sections, allows the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to, among other things, monitor email and financial transactions without securing a subpoena, use wiretapping without a court order, and require Internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over usage data on customers.

One of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act is the so-called “library provision,” which allows government officials to secretly subpoena books, records, papers, documents, and other items from businesses, hospitals, and other organizations. Critics feared that the government could use the provision to snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans. The reaction to the provision was so strong that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 5 states and 375 communities in 43 states had passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions by spring 2005. Another contentious section of the Patriot Act allows the delayed notification of search warrants; this is called the “sneak and peek” provision because it lets federal officials search a suspect’s home without telling the individual until later.

While many legislators and security experts hailed the Patriot Act provisions as necessary in combating terrorism and securing the homeland, others immediately saw the legislation as a serious infringement of civil rights. Supporters pointed to the hundreds of charges brought against suspected terrorists, as well as hundreds of convictions, as a result of the Patriot Act. But critics, including legislators, the ACLU, conservative groups, and many citizens, called the act unconstitutional—and unpatriotic. A top ACLU representative said, “Cooler heads can now see that the Patriot Act went too far, too fast and that it must be brought back in line with the Constitution.” The fallout included charges of abuses by law enforcement, the introduction of alternate legislation in Congress to revise or repeal sections of the act, as well as challenges in court (in 2004 at least two sections were found to be unconstitutional in district court).

As the debate continued over the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, some provisions were set to expire the end of 2005. In April two of the Bush administration’s top law enforcement officials urged Congress to renew every provision of the antiterror act: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (1955-) said that some of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act had proven invaluable in fighting terrorism; FBI director Robert Mueller (1944-) said sections of the law that allow intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information were especially important.


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