Definition

Patriot Act

The Patriot Act (the full name is the USA Patriot Act, or "Uniting and Strengthening America Act by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001") was enacted by the U.S. Congress on October 26, 2001, at the request of President George Bush in response to the terrorist acts of September 11. It gives controversial new powers to the Justice Department in terms of domestic and international surveillance of American citizens and others within its jurisdiction. According to its sponsors, the Act was needed to address a situation that had not existed before - the presence of terrorists within national borders - and the need to apprehend and prosecute them, hopefully before rather than after they acted. Opponents of the Act, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, say that the Act has undone previous checks on civil liberty abuses of the past and unnecessarily endangers privacy and discourages free speech.

Among the Act's provisions, flowing out of the government's ability to legally tap telephone lines in certain cases, is the ability to intercept Internet messages through its Carnivore program. Theoretically, the government has the ability to intercept all messages that are "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation," a lower standard than the previous one in which a crime had to have been committed. The Act allows the guidelines to apply to all surveillance cases, not just those of suspected terrorists.

Some opponents allege that the Act was on the drawing boards prior to September 11. Many parties agree that the Act was rushed through Congress with a minimum of study and discussion. In addition to the surveillance provisions, the Act includes sections related to money-laundering and immigration and also contains a section that condemns discrimination against Muslims and Arab-Americans.

This was last updated in April 2010
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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