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The USA Patriot Act History

The USA PATRIOT Act was adopted on October 26, 2001, and bears the official name of “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”. The reason for its adoption was the act of terrorism New York faced on September 11 2001 when Islamic terrorists hijacked four jet airliners and directed two of them into the Twin Towns of the World Trade Center destroying the towers together with two buildings situated nearby and killing every single person being on board the planes as well as those who were in the towers at that moment. The total number of people who lost their lives in the tragedy is around three thousand; at this twenty-four people are still considered missing but supposedly dead. This act is considered to be one of the most horrific acts of terrorism in world history with a number of people still abstaining from using airliners as means of transportation and still fearing to be in public places which are said to be the aim of the terrorists. Despite the fact that terrorists lived in the country sometime prior to the tragedy and even used their real names all the time, “the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement personnel never located nor questioned any of the nineteen men who participated in the attack” (Bill Sheppler, 2005), this is why the most dangerous weapon of the terrorists was namely unexpectedness with which they attacked the country which was not even prepared for this. The events which took place in the country made lawmakers, as well as citizens, ask the government why it did not provide the country with proper security and failed to prevent the act of terrorism and how it was planning to prevent future acts from taking place. As Bill Shepler (2005) informs, the answer to the first question was not fully known until July 2004 when a special investigative team, known as the 9/11 Commission, delivered an in-depth report on the attack. The answer to the second question was a collection of anti-terror laws contained in a comprehensive piece of legislation entitled the USA Patriot Act. Both the Houses of Congress passed this Act and the members of Democratic and Republican parties supported it: “(T)he act received tremendous support in both legislative branches with 357 members of the House voting for its passage and sixty-six voting against. In the Senate, ninety-eight senators voted for the Patriot Act and only one voted against” (Mary Ann Bell, Bobby Ezell, James L. Van Roekel, 2007). The Act was directed at preventing any future attacks on the United States by giving law enforcement agencies the power to check and control any wire and electronic communications tracing and intercepting phone calls and e-mail correspondence, by making federal laws more strict creating new federal crimes and arranging all existing criminal procedures in correspondence with the acts of terrorism, regulating all the financial transactions in any way connected with foreign entities as well as applying stricter laws to immigrants detaining and sometimes even deporting those who were suspected in terrorism activities and including the notion of ‘domestic terrorism’ into the definition of terrorism as such thus expanding the sphere of activity the powers of law enforcement institutions could be applied to. However, certain organizations questioned the relevance and acceptability of the USA Patriot Act enumerating a number of spheres in which human rights were violated or limited, contesting the application of the Act which seemed too broad regarding separate spheres of human activities, and ardently criticizing the fact that civil liberties were extremely limited which contradicted The First and The Fourth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

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To begin with, what the legislative bodies had to influence in the first ranks was the too vast sphere of application of powers given to the law enforcement agencies. They were entitled to get information about any suspicious activities presumably related to the act of terrorism in any way they considered appropriate. This is the first instance was applied to public libraries where the identity of suspicious people could be traced, which is why the librarians in the public libraries were ordered “to produce a list of the books read by suspected individuals. Once the list is obtained, a gag order prevents the librarian from telling anyone that the FBI has come to take the book list” (Mary Ann Bell et al., 2007). This was regarded as insulting and outrageous and the American Library Association claimed that it considered certain “sections of the USA PATRIOT Act… a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users” (quoted by Alphonse B. Ewing & Charles Doyle, 2005). This resentment made Congress take measures since nobody knew what would follow after the dissatisfaction of people with limiting their privacy. In July 2003 the House of Representatives agreed on making some amendments to the Patriot Act, namely considering the sections about the vastness of law enforcement agencies’ powers: “The Otter Amendment, added to the Commerce, Justice and State Departments funding bill and named after Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, an Idaho Republican, passed by an extraordinary margin of 309 to 118, with 113 Republicans voting in favor” (Katrin Dauenhauer, 2003). The Otter Amendment restricted the powers of law enforcement agencies to get information by means of violating the privacy of people and was met with an appraisal by civil liberties activists: “Congress took a courageous stand last night in its response to widespread public concern over civil liberties–hopefully this is the first trickle in a flood of Patriot fixes” (Katrin Dauenhauer, 2003). However, correcting certain provisions of the Act did not end with this single amendment. The desire not to be involved with violation of civil rights, which, as history shows, could lead to very serious consequences, made the Senate introduce the amendments to those provisions of the US Patriot Act which could cause the resentment of civil rights activists. October 2003 saw the introduction of a list of supported revisions concerning the doubtful provisions of the Act compiled by the Democratic senators Durbin and Craig, with Durbin stating: “I believe it is possible to combat terrorism and preserve our individual freedoms at the same time. The Patriot Act crossed the line on several key areas of civil liberties” (quoted by Howard Ball, 2004). Therefore, the changes, introduced into the Act included the prohibition of issuing nationwide search warrants, requiring the FBI to provide sufficient grounds for blaming an individual in terrorist activities before “seizing library or business records” and “to get a court order to get electronic communications from a library” (Howard Ball, 2004) as well as the possibility of using wiretaps only after informing about a name of a person or a place to be taped.

It is also worth mentioning, that initially, The US Patriot Act contained the so-called sunset provisions which specified that certain “sections of the act automatically expire after a certain period of time unless they are explicitly renewed by Congress” (Gabriel Weimann, 2006). Some of these provisions concerned the use of wiretaps and other special surveillance devices used by the FBI. It is after the expiration of these provisions that The US Patriot Act was to experience the second extension in order to become a final product and namely these provisions caused lively debates in the Parliament since some members of political leadership were absolutely against the prolongation of their term. Some of the authorities were supporting the idea of an extension of the sunset provisions whereas others as stated by Senator Patrick Leahy remained indifferent to their further fate: “I was concerned that the Republican congressional leadership had not even proposed to the Senate Democratic leadership or to that of the Judiciary Committee that action be taken to ensure that certain sunsetting provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act not be allowed simply to expire at the end of this week” (“USA Patriot Act Extension”, 2006). The bill which declared the extension of sunset provisions was passed by the House in order to deal with the remaining controversial points of the Act but the Senate did not show any evident desire to deal with this point whereas “leading Republicans were indicating that they opposed another short-term extension that could be used to work out improvements that can lead to longer-term Senate reauthorization” (“USA Patriot Act Extension”, 2006). Although, later the Senate together with the Republican Leadership suggested the second extension to The US Patriot Act which would “work out improvements to the reauthorization legislation to better protect the liberties and rights of ordinary Americans” (“USA Patriot Act Extension”, 2006). Senator Patrick Leahy stated that the President and the Republican leadership have always been the ones who were against the extension of the US Patriot Act and prolonging the term of the expiration of its sunset provisions. They insisted that just a mere reauthorizing of the Act was needed in order to give law enforcement agencies sufficient powers to fight federal crimes and that the issue of national security was no less important than the one of civil liberties and by agreeing to limit the powers of law enforcement agencies they weakened the protection of the country. Nevertheless, this all ended with signing the necessary documents and extending the Act.

As it can be seen from the facts mentioned above, law enforcement agencies were the organizations that underwent numerous changes after the adoption of the US Patriot Act. Since after the amendments to the Act the law enforcement community was forced to conduct investigation procedures only in accordance with certain rules, the Act is said to have created a separate justice system “based on activities that are outside public review”, namely “the detention of noncitizens, military tribunals, fingerprinting of immigrants, and domestic spying” (Karen M. Sowers, William Rowe, Catherine N. Dulmus, Lisa A. Rapp-Paglicci, 2008). In this way, the government was entitled to detain the noncitizens but under the Freedom of Information Act they were obliged to notify about the identity of the detained and the grounds of the detention, at this in “its zeal to seem responsive to terrorism, the government, through the Department of Justice, has embarked on a strategy that is nothing short of racial profiling, targeting largely young Middle Eastern and South Asian men” (Karen M. Sowers et al., 2008). At the same time, it was realized that simple detention of individuals only because of their belonging to a certain racial group not only failed to guarantee stronger security to the country but contradicted some of the existing laws of the United States: “What we do know is that we have instituted through the U.S. Patriot Act actions that run counter to our existing laws and the laws of the international community” (Karen M. Sowers et al., 2008). One of the most obviously violated laws concerned the detention of citizens since “according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the United States is a signatory), the period of detention prior to being brought in front of a judge or magistrate is 48 hours or a few days” (Karen M. Sowers et al., 2008) whereas under the Patriot Act the period of detention was unlimited and sometimes could reach several months, at this the detained were not even given a possibility to contact their lawyers. Military tribunals which were also created under the Patriot Act were rather disturbing due to the fact that some of the individuals detained for being suspected in connection with terroristic activities were in some instances “ultimately tried and convicted through the rubric of the military system of justice” (Karen M. Sowers et al., 2008). Despite the fact that such measures did not spread over the native citizens of the United States they influenced greatly the lives and freedoms of those who were foreign-born but still lived legally in the territory of the country. The civilian system of justice tried to fight such racial profiling by making the law enforcement agencies give at least rough evidence regarding the crime that was committed before detaining a person but this could not prevent the federal government from detaining people without giving any justification for such actions. This all testified to the fact that a separate system of justice developed in the country and it was characterized by extreme injustice and irresponsibility for actions that violated the current laws of the United States.

Furthermore, the US Patriot Act entailed the bureaucratization of a great number of police institutions. What could be observed in this sphere is that the primary target of counterterrorism was de-politicized. Bureaucratic activities could be applied irrespective of rules and laws concerning politics, justice, or legality, and this is what the autonomy of state bureaucracies ended with. Modern police institutions, now bureaucratized, were no longer subjected to political influences and were entitled to act in a way that corresponded to objectives of the bureaucratic activity.

Among the opponents to some provisions of the US Patriot Act were also a number of public interest groups. Several of them, being dissatisfied with the expansion of powers of law enforcement agencies and the limitation of civil liberties, filed lawsuits. Among these were lawsuits from library groups and the American Civil Liberties Union which is “a public interest, “watchdog” group often referred to as a “champion of the Bill of Rights” which “maintains a strong voice in justice issues” (Philip P. Purpura, 2007). This interest group was among the major critics of certain provisions of the US Patriot Act, namely section 505 dealing with the extended powers of federal agencies to find out information about individuals suspected of crimes connected with terrorism by means of conducting a secret search in library records. Among other opponents was the National League of Cities; it expressed its criticism regarding the provisions of the US Patriot Act restricting civil liberties which included “Section 213, which allows law enforcement authorities to search homes without the presence of the owner and delaying notification to the owner; Section 218, which amends the probable cause requirement for secret searches or surveillance; and Sections 411 and 412, which provide the secretary of state with broad powers to designate domestic groups as “terrorist organizations” and the attorney general with the power to confine immigrants to indefinite detention or to deportation, without proving that a crime was committed” (Philip P. Purpura, 2007). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) blamed the Federal Bureau of Investigations for targeting, detaining, and accusing innocent people of crimes they had never committed whereas the FBI in its turn claimed that the ACLU hindered the standard process of investigation interfering into governmental affairs and not letting the federal government ensure the security of the country in a way they considered appropriate. The arguments for the revision of the above-mentioned provisions of the Act, forwarded by the ACLU were that according to its survey more than a half of the adult population of the country was dissatisfied with the fact that the federal agencies had a right to intercept their personal conversations and to access their personal records not only without their permission but even without them knowing about it.

The formulation and implementation of the US Patriot Act did not pass quietly among the members of different political parties of the United States. The Libertarian Party was among those who were sharply opposed to the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Aaron Turpen, a Secretary of the Libertarian Party in the “testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on “Preventing and responding to Acts of Terrorism: A Review of Current Law” notes that “(t)he hastily-drafted and hastily-enacted Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 […] was an attempt to give federal agencies the powers they needed to combat and prevent future terrorist attacks on our nation. However, most members of Congress have now admitted that they did not read the Act and many have stated that they no longer support the powers given by it” (“Preventing and responding to acts of terrorism: a review of current law: hearing”). Together with some other entities, the Libertarian party opposed certain sections of the US Patriot Act, in particular those which concerned the expanded rights of law enforcement agencies, the violation of civil liberties and privacy of correspondence as well as other means of communication. It is necessary to mention that the Green Party was also among the ardent opponents of the US Patriot Act and as soon as it was introduced started demanding its cancellation stating the following: “The Coordinating Committee of the Green Party of the United States opposes the PATRIOT Anti-terrorism Act and many newly enacted federal and state powers because they undercut constitutional rights, deplete judicial oversight of investigative powers, and create a culture of intimidation which stifles political debate” (“Defending Constitutional Rights From Anti-terrorist Assaults”, 2002). It listed a number of provisions of the Act enumerating what exactly the members of the party were not satisfied with and demanded to return to people their privacy rights and civil liberties because, according to their statement the US Patriot Act “undercuts the First Amendment to the Constitution which protects people from guilt by association, thereby intimidating people from engaging in the freedom of speech and assembly” (“Defending Constitutional Rights From Anti-terrorist Assaults”, 2002). The members of the party urged the citizens of the country to stand up for their initial rights and “seek legal assistance from the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other legal advocacy groups” (“Defending Constitutional Rights From Anti-terrorist Assaults”, 2002). Russ Feingold was the only member of the Democratic Party who voted against the US Patriot Act but when it came to alteration of some of its provisions most of the members of the party supported the changes introduced and in February 2006 necessary corrections to certain provisions of the Act were made. The same goes for the Republican Party which after numerous arguments agreed to introduce necessary amendments to the US Patriot Act.

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And finally, the media could not but discussed the formulation and implementation of the US Patriot Act since its main function is to supply the population with necessary information on a number of issues including political ones. Attention to the news after the events of September 11, 2001, has increased considerably and around ninety-eight percent of people stated that they started regularly following the unfolding of the subsequent events. Nevertheless, the media failed properly inform people about the implementation of the US Patriot Act presenting it as an important law introduced in order to fight terrorism and possible future attacks without reporting about the problems it involved and without paying proper attention to the violating of civil liberties the Act entailed. It is only a few months later that the controversial aspects of the Act were discussed in news reports though still without proper attention.

In conclusion, the USA Patriot Act which the government brought forward in order to guarantee the country national security after the tragedy of September 11 2001 was not in any way perfect and was met with criticism by a number of entities. Among those who claimed the irrelevance and inadmissibility of the Act were different public organizations that stood up against the extension of the powers of law enforcement agencies and restriction of the rights of citizens which under the provisions of the Act were forced to experience inconveniences caused by the government’s tries to detain as many people involved into terroristic activities as it was possible. This taken into consideration, the Act was revised and certain amendments were added to it which made the restriction of civil liberties not so significant and with time reduced the constant pursuit of the individuals who due to their belonging to certain nationality were constantly detained and interrogated.


  1. Bill Scheppler. (2005). The USA Patriot Act: Antiterror Legislation in Response to 9/11. The Rosen Publishing Group
  2. Mary Ann Bell, Bobby Ezell, James L. Van Roekel. (2007). Cybersins and Digital Good Deeds: A Book about Technology and Ethics. Haworth Press
  3. Alphonse B. Ewing, Charles Doyle. (2005). The USA Patriot Act Reader. Nova Publishers
  4. Howard Ball. (2004). The USA Patriot Act of 2001: Balancing Civil Liberties and National Security: a Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO
  5. Gabriel Weimann. (2006). Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges. US Institute of Peace Press
  6. Karen M. Sowers, William Rowe, Catherine N. Dulmus, Lisa A. Rapp-Paglicci. (2008). Comprehensive Handbook of Social Work and Social Welfare: Social Work Practice. John Wiley and Sons
  7. Philip P. Purpura. (2007). Terrorism and Homeland Security: An Introduction with Preventing and responding to acts of terrorism: a review of current law: hearing. DIANE Publishing
  8. Katrin Dauenhauer. (2003). House bars secret-search provision of PATRIOT Act.
  10. (2002). Defending Constitutional Rights From Anti-terrorist Assaults.Policy Statement of the Coordinating Committee, Green Party of the United States.

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