The USA PATRIOT Act
Legislation Rushed Into Law in the Wake of 9/11/01
The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was signed into law on October 26, 2001. The text of the bill is here.
The law was submitted to Congress by the Bush Administration on September 24th, just 13 days after the attack. Two of the Senators who attempted to slow passage of the bill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, were targeted with letters containing weaponized anthrax delivered to their offices on October 9. Russ Feingold was the only member of the Senate to vote against it. 1
The Campaign Committee of UNITE FOR PEACE provided the following brief rundown on the potential impact of the act on freedoms:
- Freedom of Association: Government may monitor religious and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity to assist terror investigations.
- Freedom of Information: Government has closed once-public immigration hearings, has secretly detained hundreds of people without charges, and has encouraged bureaucrats to resist public records requests.
- Freedom of Speech: Government may prosecute librarians or keepers of any other records if they tell anyone that the government subpoenaed information related to terror investigations.
- Right to Legal Representation: Government may monitor federal prison jailhouse conversations between attorneys and clients, and deny lawyers to US citizens accused of crimes.
- Freedom from Unreasonable Searches: Government may search and seize papers and effects owned by citizens without probable cause to assist terror investigations.
- Right to a Speedy and Public Trial: Government may jail anyone indefinitely without a trial, including US citizens.
- Right to Liberty: Anyone may be jailed without being charged or being able to confront witnesses against them.
A More Detailed Look
The American Civil Liberties Union gives a more detailed description of the provisions of the act.
- Secret Searches: The USA PATRIOT Act expands the ability of the government to use so called "sneak and peek" and "black bag" secret searches. These searches, depending on the target, require either no notification at all of the person being searched, or delay notification until after the search has occurred. This means that physical searches of our homes, cars, computers, workplaces and reading materials can be conducted without our knowledge. These provisions apply both in anti-terrorism investigations and routine criminal investigations. aclu.org
- Government Surveillance: The USA PATRIOT Act minimizes the power of the courts to prevent law enforcement authorities from illegally abusing certain types of telephone and Internet surveillance in both anti-terrorism investigations and run-of-the-mill criminal investigations of American citizens. Law enforcement officials have the power to investigate American citizens for criminal matters without establishing probable cause if they designate that the investigation is for "intelligence purposes." The Director of Central Intelligence also has broad authority to identify individuals as targets for intelligence surveillance, placing the CIA firmly back in the business of spying on Americans.
- Privacy: The USA PATRIOT Act granted the FBI -- and, under new information sharing provisions, many other law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- broad access to highly personal medical, financial, mental health, library and student records with only the most minimal judicial oversight. The court must issue a subpoena whenever the FBI states that it is for an investigation to protect against international terrorism. The recipient of the subpoena is prohibited from telling anyone that the FBI has asked for the information. Now the FBI can get the entire database of a credit card company or the records of everyone who has used a certain public library. It can obtain information on everyone registered at a particular hotel, hospital, or university. It does not need to show probable cause that a crime is, has been, or will be committed.
- Dissent/Free Speech: The USA PATRIOT Act has the very real potential to greatly chill constitutionally protected speech in its overbroad redefinition of "domestic terrorism." The new definition is so vague that it could allow the government to designate lawful advocacy groups, like Greenpeace and Operation Rescue, as terrorist groups and subject them to invasive surveillance, wiretapping, harassment and then criminally penalize them for protected political advocacy.
- Bill of Rights for Non-Citizens: The USA PATRIOT Act permits the Attorney General to incarcerate or detain non-citizens based on mere suspicion and to deny re-admission to the US of non-citizens (including legal, long-term permanent residents) for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment.
Jeffifer Van Bergen wrote a detailed 6-part analysis of the Act in April of 2002, closing with a comparison to the Alien and Sedition Acts. 3
2. Analysis of Justice Department draft Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, aclu.org, [cached]
3. Repeal the USA Patriot Act, truthout.org, [cached]