Patriot Act

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President George W. Bush signing Patriot Act before bipartisan gathering of members of Congress

The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001—The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (more commonly known as simply the Patriot Act) -- is supposedly an anti-terrorism bill written in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 45 days after the terrorist attacks. The primary purpose of the bill was to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to fight the domestic war on terror. The bill expanded the definitions of other crime-fighting bills to include terrorists, it provided funds to the Justice Department for fighting terrorism, and, made broad changes to surveillance and intelligence procedures.

Certain provisions of the Patriot Act for expanded use of surveillance coupled with FISA abuse were used by the Obama administration to spy on the 2016 Trump campaign and Trump transition.[1]


The Patriot Act at the time of its passage was often confused by mainstream media with the Authorization for Use of Military Force (P.L. 107-40) in Iraq,[2] which allows the President to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against 9/11-related terrorism (and was the basis for Guantanamo-related issues).

Key parts of the PATRIOT Act expired on June 1, 2015, due to lack of congressional approval. This included Section 215, which pertains to the ability of the National Security Agency to store records of all phone calls made in the United States. This was amended in the USA Freedom Act, passed on June 2, 2015, which gives the phone companies control of the record and the government would then have to receive a warrant to receive records of a number associated with any terrorism.

Passage of the Act

In rthe immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks Attorney General John Ashcroft formally proposed the increases in law enforcement powers on September 19, 2001 requesting that they be considered immediately. Bush administration, along with the overwhelming majority of members of Congress, felt these provisions were necessary to prevent any more imminent or future attacks. Many of the proposed powers had been sought by the Justice Department for years (the Clinton administration, for example, sought but was denied so-called roving wiretaps – a power that was included in the final bill), but in the wake of a successful attack upon American soil and the demands of the American public for action gave Congress the impetus to pass the measures.[3]

The House Judiciary Committee debated the proposal for weeks and reached an agreement on October 2, with few minor changes. A sunset provision, the hallmark of Gingrich-style reform, was included requiring renewal of the act within two years. The committee said that it understood the need for expediency, so it would add the sunset clauses to allow debate on the issue when time was not as much of an issue. The administration, however, was worried that the United States would still be fighting the war on terror when the clause came into effect.[4]

The Democratically controlled Senate version of the bill went more in favor of the White House. While the bill was never considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee’s chair Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, along with members from both parties met with the Bush Administration to negotiate a bill that the Senate and White House could agree on. This version (finalized on October 4) did not include a sunset provision, and it allowed lower barriers for obtaining search warrants. Additionally it gave the federal government new tools to fight money laundering.[3]

The Senate passed its version of the bill with a 96-1 vote (only Senator Russ D. Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin voted nay) after just three hours of debate on October 11. The House revised its version of the bill to make it a little more to the Administration’s and Senate's liking than the version approved by the House Judiciary Committee, including moving the date of the sunset back three years, to 2006. The Senate agreed to the sunset provision and this version passed the House the next day by a massive 337-79 vote. The House and Senate reconciled an agreement between the two versions (including changing the sunset date to December 31, 2005) and sent the bill, now officially known as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, back to their respective chambers, where it passed 357-66 in the House on October 24 and 98-1 in the Senate (with Senator Feingold dissenting) a day later. It was signed into law by President Bush on the following day, 37 days after the original proposal to Congress.[3]

Domestic surveillance

See also: FISA abuse

The Patriot Act was intended to fight foreign spy networks, terrorist organizations, and criminal organizations in three main ways: disrupting funding, improving methods of prosecution, and expanding surveillance procedures and intelligence sharing. There were other minor parts, such as setting up a fund in the Treasury Department to reimburse the Department of Justice for fighting terrorism and a section which condemns discrimination against Muslims and Arab Americans.[5] Most of the provisions deal directly with terrorism, but some have broader applicability, and some are not related to terrorism at all.

Roving Wiretaps

The first step in disrupting an organization is finding the subjects before they can successfully act on a plot to attack the United States. The Patriot Act provides the means for the federal government to gather intelligence on these plots, primarily through wiretaps and search warrants. One such provision is the so-called roving wiretaps provision. Roving wiretaps themselves are not new, they have been use investigating crime since 1986; the Patriot act simply extends this tool to gathering intelligence of terrorists.[6] Before roving wiretaps, the FBI would need to get a separate FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) warrant for each method of communication used by a suspect. This means that if the suspect switched phones or used public computers the FBI would need to get multiple warrants. The Patriot Act allows for FISC warrants on a specific person, rather than a single specific phone line as under the old law. This means that the FBI could get one warrant, and tap whatever line the suspect happens to be using at the time.[6]

Sneak and Peek Warrants

Another tool provided by the Patriot Act is delayed-notification search warrants, or sneak and peek warrants.[7] These are warrants which allow for the execution of a search and seizure of a property in a federal crime without notification of the subject. The government must show the court “reasonable cause” to believe that notifying the suspect would lead to an “adverse result” such as destruction of evidence, intimidation of a witness, or jeopardizing the investigation. "Reasonable cause" is not defined in the act. Sneak and peek warrants, like roving wiretaps, have been used in the past under other circumstances, but they had never before been allowed to retrieve physical evidence, only information or photographs of a scene.[7]

Libraries Provision

A third tool provided by the Patriot Act is the so-called “libraries provision,” sometimes just called Section 215. Section 215 broadens the FBI’s power to seize records of activities, specifically business records. Before the Act, the FBI could only subpoena “hotels, motels, car and truck rental agencies, and storage rental facilities,” but these powers were expanded through the act to include records from any place of business.[8] Section 215 also expands the items the FBI can obtain to include “any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items).”[8] The Act also loosens the requirements to procure a warrant. Whereas before the FBI had to show evidence that the subject under surveillance was a foreign power or agent thereof, after the act, the FBI simply has to assert that the seizure is for a foreign intelligence investigation, clandestine intelligence activities or to protect against international terrorism. There is no requirement for an evidential hearing. Section 215 is called the libraries provision because it could potentially be used to subpoena a list of books checked out from a library, or a list of websites visited at a library computer, all without notifying the suspect.[8]

Intelligence Sharing

The Patriot Act also has several provisions which allow for information and intelligence to be better shared among the investigative and intelligence agencies. The Act allowed information about suspect activities to be shared between federal, state and local governments, as it was previously allowed for other types of crimes. It also allowed for adding DNA samples of terrorists and other violent offenders to the national database which already includes DNA samples of other certain crimes.[5]

Money Laundering

Another way the Patriot Act protects national security is by cutting off sources of illegal funding, which it does by attempting to curtail money laundering. The act requires all monetary institutions (the definition of which is very broad; it includes pawn brokers, insurance agencies, and diamond dealers) to enact a four part program.[9] The institution must appoint a compliance officer, establish a training program to recognize money laundering, establish a testing or auditing program to evaluate the accuracy of laundering detection and establish policies to avoid being used to launder money.[9]

Definition of Terrorism

Finally, the Patriot Act expands upon the definition of terrorism to include acts which were previously not part of federal law. It makes illegal terrorist acts against mass transportation systems as well as harboring terrorists or persons one knows or should know to be terrorists. The Act also expands the definition of conspiracy to allow for conspiracies in other types of crime, such as arson, and creates a definition of domestic terrorist (someone who commits an offence which is “(1) dangerous to human life and violate[s] the criminal laws of the United States or any state; and (2) appear[s] to be intended (or have the effect) – to intimidate a civilian population; influence government policy by intimidation or coercion; or affect government conduct by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping (or a threat of)”).[5]


Sixteen sections of the original bill were set to expire on December 31, 2001, unless Congress decided to extend them or make them permanent. These sections were all from Title II of the act, the title which contained surveillance procedures, including the controversial ones mentioned above. After months of wrangling, negotiation, and debate (and two deadline extensions) Congress finally on March 2, 2006 passed a bill which renewed the Patriot Act but implemented additional safeguards for civil liberties.[10] Most of the measures were permanent, but the roving wiretap provision was extended only until 2009. Section 215, the libraries provision, was also extended to 2009, but now recipients of the FISA warrant may petition the government after one year to remove the gag order. Key parts of the Act expired on June 1, 2015, in a special Sunday session, due to lack of action, but most of these provisions were restored due to the USA Freedom Act's passage the following day.


The Department of Justice, now headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, says that the Patriot Act has been a useful tool in finding and dismantling terrorist organizations and plots. It has disrupted over 150 terrorist threats and cells, incapacitated over 3,000 terrorists, broken up five terror cells within U.S. borders, charged 401 individuals on terror charges and convicted 212,[11] though the department does not differentiate between those captured through the new provisions of the Patriot Act, and those who were discovered by other means.

See also

External links


  1. *DOJ Political Surveillance – From the IRS in 2011 to the FISA Court in 2016, Posted on March 8, 2020 by sundance.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "USA PATRIOT Act, 2001-2002 Legislative Chronology." Congress and the Nation, 2001-2004, vol. 11, pp. 187-8 (Washington: CQ Press, 2006)
  4. Bridis, Ted and Jess Bravin. “White House Seeks to Remove Time Limit On Surveillance Part of Anti-terrorism Bill.” The Wall Street Journal, October 5th, 2001, p. A.18
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Leahy, Patrick. “USA PATRIOT Act – Section by Section Analysis.” (Accessed April 16th, 2007)
  6. 6.0 6.1 DeRosa, Mary. “Section 206: Roving Surveillance Authority Under FISA: A Summary” (American Bar Association, 2005). (Accessed April 16th, 2007)
  7. 7.0 7.1 DeRosa, Mary. “Section 213: ‘Sneak and Peek’ Search Warrants: A Summary” (American Bar Association, 2005). (Accessed April 16th, 2007)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 DeRosa, Mary. “Section 215: Access to Business Records under FISA (‘Libraries Provision’): A Summary” (American Bar Association, 2005). (Accessed April 16th, 2007)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Serino, Robert. “Anti-Laundering Concerns Not Just for Banks Anymore.” American Banker, November 30th, 2001, vol. 167, iss. 229, p. 9
  10. Diamond, John. “Senate Passes Patriot Act Changes; Civil liberties protections added to anti-terror law clear way for renewal” USA Today. March 2nd, 2006, p A.8
  11. U.S. Department of Justice. “Waging the War On Terror,” (Accessed April 16th, 2007).