Patriot Act, United States

Patriot Act, United States

The Patriot Act, or Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, was signed into law on October 26, 2001, in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The legislation grants law enforcement and intelligence agencies more power to detain and question suspects for longer periods of time, and increases their ability to conduct surveillance operations.

The act further calls on federal agencies to share information regarding terrorist activities with each other, and with foreign intelligence services if necessary. Thus, domestic law enforcement was granted new privileges to deal directly with international agencies. The bill asks, but cannot compel that foreign intelligence services reciprocate and share information with United States authorities.

Some provisions, such as the authority to intercept wire communications that possibly relate to terrorism and the sharing of criminal investigative information, are set to expire in 2005. Some debated provisions, however, will remain indefinitely. The sharing of grand jury information and the ability to search without a warrant in limited cases, for example, do not expire.

The Patriot Act extended the government's surveillance authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed by the United States Congress in 1978. New powers included roving wiretap authority (the surveillance of communications related to an individual or organization without regard to particular telephone line, computer station, or other mode of communication to be monitored). Other extensions included a more liberalized use of pen register, trap and trace devices (removing the need to assert that the surveillance target is "an agent of a foreign power"). In May 2002, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court specifically rejected Justice Department attempts at "information screening" and "minimization" procedures intended to allow the use of material gathered under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorization in criminal proceedings. The Department of Justice appealed the ruling to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.

Supporters of the Patriot Act say that the legislation is not drastic and that law enforcement and intelligence must not be hampered in their pursuit of suspected terrorists. Opponents assert the law infringes on constitutional protections on legal search, seizure, and detention of property and persons. Some are wary of the implications of the Patriot Act on Internet and computer privacy. Others argue that the measure is acceptable during wartime, or when specifically applied against suspected terrorists, but that broad interpretation and application of the law could be problematic in its constitutionality.

The newness of the law means that it has yet to be both fully implemented and ultimately tested. Thus, a final assessment on its efficacy, intent, application, and legacy will require the perspective of time.


Homeland Security, United States Department of
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States

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