USA Patriot Act definition

Contributor(s): Jacqueline Biscobing

The USA Patriot Act is an antiterrorism law enacted by the U.S. Congress in October 2001, at the request of then-President George W. Bush in response to the terrorist attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C. Often referred to simply as the Patriot Act, it was signed by Bush on Oct. 26, 2001.

The law gave new powers to the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Security Agency and other federal agencies on domestic and international surveillance of electronic communications; it also removed legal barriers that had blocked law enforcement, intelligence and defense agencies from sharing information about potential terrorist threats and coordinating efforts to respond to them. But the Patriot Act raised concerns among civil liberties groups and other critics surrounding the data privacy rights of U.S. citizens -- concerns that were heightened significantly in 2013, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information showing that the agency was using the law to justify the bulk collection of data about millions of phone calls.

Officially known as the Uniting and Strengthening America Act by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 -- or "USA Patriot Act" -- the law is intended to help government agencies detect and prevent possible acts of terrorism, or sponsorship of terrorist groups. The act comprises 10 categories, called "titles," including:

Title I: Enhancing domestic security against terrorism
Title II: Enhanced surveillance procedures
Title III: Anti-money-laundering to prevent terrorism
Title IV: Border security
Title V: Removing obstacles to investigating terrorism
Title VI: Victims and families of victims of terrorism
Title VII: Increased information sharing for critical infrastructure protection
Title VIII: Terrorism criminal law
Title IX: Improved intelligence
Title X: Miscellaneous

Patriot Act opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claim that the law has undone previous checks on civil liberty abuses, unnecessarily endangered privacy and discouraged free speech.

Among the Patriot Act's more controversial provisions is the ability to intercept Internet messages, included among the sections in Title II. Flowing out of the government's ability to legally tap telephone lines in certain cases, the USA Patriot Act permits the interception of all messages that are "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation." Among its other surveillance-related authorizations, the act also allowed authorities to:

  • Compel organizations to provide access to "any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."
  • Engage in so-called roving wiretaps, which allows surveillance on a target without specifying the device to be tapped.

Critics contended that the "any tangible things" provision, which was part of Section 215 in Title II, was a lower bar than previously established guidelines regarding information that businesses could be required to provide to the government. Both that and the roving wiretaps measure were "sunset" provisions designed to expire if not periodically reauthorized by Congress. They were reauthorized on several occasions, in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011. In the last instance, on May 26, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011, which extended the two provisions until June 1, 2015. That bill similarly extended a provision of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 allowing surveillance of individuals who are suspected of engaging in terrorism activities but are not known to be part of larger groups; the "lone wolf" provision was tied to the Patriot Act's sunset schedule.

However, the sunset provisions came in for increasing scrutiny after the Snowden leaks about the NSA's program to collect and analyze phone call data, an initiative that was heavily criticized by privacy advocates after it came to light. The NSA cited Section 215 of the Patriot Act as justification for the program, which the agency said was aimed at helping to identify and track possible terrorism suspects. In addition, federal officials said that the special-purpose Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had approved the NSA's data-collection practices on multiple occasions. But in May 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled that the program violated the Patriot Act in an opinion on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

The PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act expired as scheduled at the start of June 2015 after the Senate was unable to come to agreement on a proposed extension. The next day, the USA Freedom Act -- or, in full, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act -- passed the Senate on a 67-32 vote and was signed into law by Obama. It had already been passed by the House of Representatives on May 13, 2015, as an alternative to extending the sunset provisions within the Patriot Act itself.

The USA Freedom Act restores the expired provision regarding the ability to conduct roving wiretaps, as well as the one allowing surveillance of suspected lone wolves. But it institutes a ban on the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA; instead, telephone companies will retain the phone records, and the NSA must make specific requests for information.

In addition to the surveillance provisions, the Patriot Act includes measures related to money laundering and to immigration and border protection; for example, it requires banks and other financial institutions to track and report suspicious activity to the U.S. Department of the Treasury in an effort to subvert money-laundering attempts. The law also contains a variety of other provisions, including sections that condemn discrimination against Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans and Sikh-Americans.

This was first published in May 2015

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