During the weeks immediately following the 9/11 attacks, comprehensive legislation to close the loopholes in America's existing national-security laws was drafted in the form of the USA PATRIOT Act, which passed with a lone dissenting vote in the Senate and a mere 66 (out of 435) dissenting votes in the House of Representatives. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The name “PATRIOT Act” is an acronym for "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."
The PATRIOT Act was no dramatic departure from existing legislation. Indeed, its key provisions were incorporated from an anti-terrorism measure that had been passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton five years earlier: the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996," which was a response to Timothy McVeigh's April 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 175 innocent people.
This 1996 Act contained a number of key provisions to combat terrorism, but the ones that immediately inspired the formation of a leftist coalition against the legislation were three particular provisions that: (a) made it a criminal offense to provide "material support" or "expert advice or assistance" to terrorist groups; (b) allowed prosecutors to use secret evidence in terrorism cases; and (c) authorized the U.S. Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General to jointly designate organizations as terrorist groups based upon available evidence. The most influential civil-liberties voices in the United States alleged that with the passage of the 1996 bill, the rights and freedoms of all Americans were under assault by a government that was seeking not only empire abroad, but totalitarian control at home.
These very same criticisms were later aimed at the PATRIOT Act. But from the Act's inception, its terms stayed well within the parameters of established law. Nor were they nearly as harsh as a number of security measures that had been imposed during previous times of national crisis – measures such as President Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or President Franklin Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The PATRIOT Act's enforcement provisions were made subject to judicial review and required judicial writs and warrants to authorize them.
The PATRIOT Act became the cornerstone of America's domestic security program. Most significantly, it removed several Clinton-era restrictions that had erected "walls of separation" preventing intelligence officials and law-enforcement officials from sharing information with one another and collaborating on investigations. This restriction had effectively crippled the government’s ability to fight terrorism, and was arguably culpable for the government’s failure to avert the 9/11 attacks.
The PATRIOT Act also gave the Treasury Department more leverage with which to disrupt terrorist financing networks; it gave the Attorney General slightly more authority to detain and deport suspected terrorist aliens; it allowed law-enforcement officials to obtain a single search warrant covering any and all localities where they suspected terrorist activity might occur (rather than having to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining separate warrants for each location); and it increased the penalties for those guilty of committing terrorist crimes or harboring terrorists.
From the moment the Patriot Act was passed into law in October 2001, a host of leftwing activists (and the organizations they represented) launched a relentless campaign of attacks smearing the legislation as an invasive assault on the freedoms of all Americans. Among the leaders of this anti-Patriot Act coalition were officials and spokespersons of such groups as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, the National Lawyers Guild, the Humanitarian Law Project, People For the American Way, the National Coalition to Repeal the Patriot Act, the American Muslim Alliance, the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim Union, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim American Society, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada.
Typical of the criticisms directed against the Patriot Act were those expressed by Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Chang asserted that the Patriot Act "sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating vast new powers in the executive branch of government"; "portends a wholesale suspension of civil liberties that will reach far beyond those who are involved in terrorist activities"; "places our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and political association in jeopardy by creating a broad new crime of 'domestic terrorism,' and by denying entry to non-citizens on the basis of ideology"; "grants the executive branch unprecedented, and largely unchecked, surveillance powers, including the enhanced ability to track email and Internet usage, conduct sneak-and-peek searches, obtain sensitive personal records, monitor financial transactions, and conduct nationwide roving wiretaps"; "permits law enforcement agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment's requirement of probable cause when conducting wiretaps and searches that have, as 'a significant purpose,' the gathering of foreign intelligence"; and "allows for the sharing of information between criminal and intelligence operations and thereby opens the door to a resurgence of domestic spying by the Central Intelligence."
In a similar vein, Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, stated that "the USA Patriot Act and other actions taken by the [Bush] administration undermine our civil liberties and the constitutional system of checks and balances." "Provisions in the USA Patriot Act," wrote Neas on another occasion, "have left individuals open to secret seizure of private data and individual records even when there is no evidence of a relationship with a suspected terrorist or criminal activity. The increasing practice of ethnic and racial profiling has created a culture of fear and suspicion within many immigrant communities, especially Muslim communities. This suspicion and fear discourages cooperation with antiterrorism efforts, and diverts resources from more targeted investigations that could lead to dangerous terrorist cells as opposed to innocent immigrants."
The USA PATRIOT and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2005, which reauthorized provisions of the PATRIOT Act and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, was passed by both houses of Congress in July 2005. This legislation created new provisions relating to capital punishment for terrorists, seaport security, the financing of terrorism, and the powers of the Secret Service, among others.
A second reauthorization bill -- the USA PATRIOT Act Additional Reauthorizing Amendments Act of 2006 -- amended the first and was passed in February 2006.
On February 27, 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation (which had been approved by both the House and the Senate) authorizing a one-year extension of three controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act that were slated to expire the following day. Those were provisions that allowed court-approved roving wiretaps of terror suspects; court-approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations; and surveillance of so-called "lone wolf," non-U.S. citizens who engage in terrorism but do not belong to a recognized terrorist group.
In February 2011, the House of Representatives approved a temporary extension of a number of controversial PATRIOT Act provisions, by a vote of 275 to 144. In the final tally, 211 Republicans and 64 Democrats voted in favor of the extension; 27 Republicans and 117 Democrats voted against it.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore such topics as:
- the actual wording and provisions of the PATRIOT Act, and
- a defense of the PATRIOT Act as an appropriate and necessary anti-terrorism measure.