The USA PATRIOT Act moved through Congress to the White House quickly. In an immediate reaction to the events of September 11, the USA PATRIOT Act was approved in the Senate on October 11, 2001, by a vote of 96 to 1. On October 12, 2001, the House of Representatives approved it with a vote of 337 to 79. The act became law when President George W. Bush signed it on October 26, 2001. Rarely has legislation moved through Congress and been signed into law with such speed. Critics have charged that adoption was too hasty, allowing the Department of Justice under Attorney General John Ashcroft to throw in provisions defeated during the Bill Clinton administration into a package passed with few members of Congress thoroughly understanding it.
Provisions of the original act were controversial for greatly expanding the power of government, with few checks and balances. The act expanded the range of crimes that could be tracked by government agencies using electronic surveillance. Federal authorities were granted authority to use roving wiretaps on any phone that a suspected terrorist might be expected to use. Law enforcement officers could now conduct searches of suspects without notifying them until later, a tactic that became known as a sneak-and-peek operation. This particular type of search had previously been used against organized crime figures and major drug dealers. Now Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents could obtain secret court orders to search such personal records as business, medical, library, and other files without probable cause in potential terrorism cases. The act made it a federal crime to harbor a terrorist. It also increased criminal penalties for a laundry list of offenses, ranging from conspiracy to commit terrorism to interference with a flight crew. Search warrants became easy to obtain in terrorist-related investigations. The attorney general was authorized to detain foreign terrorism suspects for a full week without initiating any type of legal proceeding or having to show cause. Finally, the law provided for new financial and legal tools to end international money laundering. The only restriction on this law was that its surveillance and wiretap provisions were required to be renewed in 2005.
Critics of the USA PATRIOT Act have come from both ends of the political spectrum. Among the leading critics has been the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A second leading critic has been the oldest conservative grassroots lobbying organization in the country, the American Conservative Union (ACU). The ACLU's opposition is based on the argument that the law violates rights to privacy; in contrast, the ACU's opposition stems from its belief in the need to limit federal authority. Both organizations are hesitant about the use of antiterrorism investigations to charge American citizens with crimes unrelated to terrorism. The USA PATRIOT Act has been used to investigate everything from murder to child pornography. Together the ACLU and ACU have lobbied to amend the USA PATRIOT Act to ensure protection for civil liberties.
Two other critics of the USA PATRIOT Act have been business interests and librarians. Business interests object to the act's anti–money-laundering provisions. These provisions were intended to prevent, detect, and prosecute money laundering and the financing of terrorism, and required banks and other financial institutions to establish programs to monitor financial activities. Fines and prison sentences are the penalties for noncompliance with money-laundering restrictions, and representatives of financial institutions have complained about the cost of compliance.
Librarians have challenged the right of FBI investigators to inspect library records, with the American Library Association (ALA) having initiated several lawsuits against this provision. Besides objecting to the access given the FBI to inspect individuals' library records, librarians also oppose the act's prohibition against informing patrons that their records are the subject of a search. Most court fights to defeat the issuance of National Security Letters (the subpoenas for records, which do not require a judge's approval) have been unsuccessful, but the public's negative opinion of the practice has deterred the FBI from using it except in rare cases.
Supporters of the USA PATRIOT Act have maintained that its restrictions are necessary to fight the war against terrorism, and favor even greater restrictions if they prevent the conduct of terror operations on American soil. The act is required to be periodically renewed, and supporters consider it a necessity as long as terrorist threats continue.
Despite opposition to several of its provisions, the USA PATRIOT Act was renewed on March 7, 2006. With amendments to address a few objections to it, the act was approved in the Senate by a vote of 95 to 4, and in the House by 280 to 138. One amendment excluded libraries that function in a "traditional capacity" from having to furnish the records sought in a National Security Letter. Another amendment gave persons subpoenaed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court the right to challenge the nondisclosure, or gag order, requirement of the subpoena. Finally, two of the act's provisions—the authority of the FBI to conduct roving wiretaps and the power of the government to seize business records with the FISA Court's approval—were constrained by a sunset requirement and were set to expire on December 31, 2009. In February 2010, however, the House of Representatives and Senate approved a one-year extension on these provisions, as well as a third that allowed for surveillance of non-U.S. citizens engaged in terrorism but not part of a recognized terrorist organization. On February 27, President Barack Obama signed the extensions into law.
Stephen E. Atkins
Babington, Charles. "Congress Votes to Renew Patriot Act, with Changes." Washington Post, March 8, 2006, A3; Baker, Stewart A. Patriot Debates: Experts Debate the USA Patriot Act. New York: American Bar Association, 2005; Ball, Howard, and Mildred Vasan, eds. The USA PATRIOT Act: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004; Etzioni, Amitai. How Patriotic Is the PATRIOT Act? New York: Routledge, 2004; Leone, Richard C., and Greg Anriq, eds. The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in the Age of Terrorism. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003; Rush, Paul. "Patriot Act Forges Unlikely Alliance." Insight on the News, September 29, 2003, 26; Yoo, John. War by Other Means: An Insider's Account of the War on Terror. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.