The Act

The Patriot Act [PDF] was passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Act itself, approved without amendment and little opposition in the House and Senate, included a provision for a counterterrorism fund, fortified and amended existing government surveillance activities, altered the process for prosecuting certain terroristic activities, and changed the substantive and procedural rights of non-US citizen aliens.

The Patriot Act expanded the scope of the federal government's surveillance activities in records searches, secret searches, and intelligence searches. Beyond this, the Patriot Act contained several provisions that affected the responsibilities of financial institutions in regards to due diligence monitoring and reporting of suspicious activities to prevent the domestic financing of terrorist operations.

A principal result of the surveillance overhaul, beyond the financial sector, was the relaxed reliance on previous forms of surveillance, which usually involved a more robust system of checks against overreaching authority. Roving wiretaps was one such method made obsolete by Patriot Act; this type of wiretap permitted law enforcement to investigate suspected criminals, for crimes such as racketeering, by targeting their direct lines of communication. This focused surveillance was only permissible, however, after the law enforcement body had obtained prior approval from a federal court based on both jurisdiction and mode of communication. This type of accountability system was designed to favor personal liberty by encouraging strong proof of probable cause before the courts would authorize any type of surveillance. From a practical standpoint, this created obstacles that government officials and law enforcement were compelled to hurtle before they could justify infringing the liberty of an individual or group by invading their privacy. To some degree, the Patriot Act allowed law enforcement to circumvent this traditional procedural safeguard, which arguably opened an avenue for governmental abuse of discretion. Government actors under the Act could institute surveillance based on an activity as innocuous as internet preferences. A principal concern, given such wide latitude for surveillance, was the infringement of fundamental rights protected by the First and Fourth Amendments.

From another perspective, however, the broad justification for increasing surveillance activities enabled law enforcement and government officials to pursue potential terroristic activity without jeopardizing the lives of citizens by wasting time seeking judicial approval. This far-reaching feature of the Act, its proponents urged, was necessary to combat terrorist cells and operations that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to track with the nation's outdated surveillance infrastructure. In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the latter of these two rationales, which contemplated proactive efficiency over deliberative reactivity, prevailed in Congress' passage of the Act.

The Patriot Act was espoused as an Act that would expedite the process of countering terroristic threats; Title V of the Act straightforwardly summarized this objective: "Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism." The Act's broad authorization to carry out its counterterrorism mandate, however, resulted in the collection of data from third party sources, including metadata from phone companies, which led to a multi-agency report released in 2009 condemning the federal wiretapping program as warrantless and, eventually, culminated in the well-publicized declassification of NSA documents by Edward Snowden in 2013.

History and Inception of the PATRIOT Act

The USA PATRIOT Act [text] was passed by the Senate 98-1 and 357-66 by the House, and signed into law by President George W. Bush [official biography] on October 26, 2001. This act was a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks [JURIST backgrounder] and was introduced to Congress in an effort to combat terrorist activity [JURIST report].

In the wake of 9/11, President Bush declared [speech, text] a War on Terror. Soon after this declaration a series of anti-terrorism bills became a large part of this effort and were being introduced into Congress. The goal of the new legislation was to provide better tools and increased power to law enforcement in order to better investigate and prevent future terrorist attacks. The draft of the PATRIOT Act was entitled "the Anti Terrorism Act" of 2001. It was drafted by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch [official biography], along with Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy [official biography] and Arlen Specter [official biography]. This draft bill evolved into the USA Act/PATRIOT Act which then became the foundation for the now known USA PATRIOT Act.

The original legislation contained 10 titles authorizing the government to conduct a wide range of activities aimed at preventing future terror attacks. In May 2011, Congress extend the Act for another four years [JURIST Report]. Since its inception, the PATRIOT Act has led to significant controversy over the balance of civil liberties and national security [JURIST backgrounder].

Challenges to the Act & Its Reauthorizations

Following a debate in Congress over reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act, three sections were allowed to expire on June 1, 2015. Earlier, House of Representative passed the USA Freedom Act. Despite this Sunday night session of Congress in which some members attempted to extend sections of the USA PATRIOT Act, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, led the challenge of the USA PATRIOT Act. The Senator had called for more privacy, and he filibustered earlier in May so that the three sections of the USA PATRIOT Act would indeed expire. Section 215, the controversial authorization to collect telephone data on Americas, was one of the provisions that expired after midnight on June 1. The successor to the USA PATRIOT Act, the USA Freedom Act, most notably addresses Section 215. It does not, however, modify the other two expired provisions. The sections that deal with roving wiretapping suspected terrorists, and the section on the legality of using security tools on single individuals terrorists not affiliated with larger terrorist groups would be reauthorized in the USA Freedom Act if it passes the Senate.

This is not the first time that the USA PATRIOT Act has reached an expiration date. Back in 2011, President Obama extended the Act just before the act would have lapsed. Senator Rand Paul had filibustered during that debate as well. Although the bill has been controversial, in the past the Senate had voted to expand the act's time limit.


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