October 26, 2001: What is the USA Patriot Act?

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A Brief History

On October 26, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a new law into effect known familiarly as “The Patriot Act” or “The USA Patriot Act.”  Of course, the name intentionally evokes nationalistic feelings in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent Anthrax terrorist mailings, but did you know the name is actually an acronym?  It is, with the long version called, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” (Note how the first letters in the words spell out USA PATRIOT ACT) a title attributed to the ingenuity of congressional staffer Chris Cylke.  The Senate approved the measure by a 98-1 yes vote, while the House of Representatives was a little more reserved, posting a 357–66 in favor of the legislation.  Only 3 of the “no” votes were by Republicans.  While meant to ensure the safety of Americans, critics claim the Act infringes upon the privacy and rights of Americans, possibly in an un-Constitutional manner.

Digging Deeper

The wide margin of Congressional approval is a clue as to the public acceptance of the ACT in the face of mass fear of new terrorist attacks.  Only the hard corps left and such organizations as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) opposed the gift wrapped carte blanche given to the Government.  Despite lawsuits and complaints of un-Constitutional searches and wire-tapping allowed by the ACT, President Bush signed a renewal of the ACT in 2006 in the face of “sunset” provisions that would have allowed some of the extraordinary measures to expire.  Even President Barack Obama again signed a bill renewing the ACT in 2011.  When some of the martial law like measures expired in 2015, a new law, the USA Freedom Act, was quickly passed by Congress to restore the unfettered government powers.  Only the unlimited ability of the NSA (National Security Agency) to access all telephone records was eliminated, although phone companies were required to keep all records and make them available to law enforcement authorities if asked to do so by court order.  The law is up for further review in 2019.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

Other anti-terrorist related measures such as the establishment of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and the “No Fly List” have also become controversial at times, with TSA coming up with blatantly ridiculous procedures and actions (at times) and the so called “No Fly List” mistakenly including prominent people even including Congressmen on the list with no expedient means of removing oneself from the list in the case of mistakes.

The ACT is comprised of 10 sections, called “Titles” and numbered by Roman numerals.  Each title is designed to enhance American security one way or another.  (Readers can find more details at the Government website linked in this article’s first line.)

President George W. Bush in October 2001, elucidating on the government’s rationale behind the USA PATRIOT Act before signing into law.

Title I: Enhancing domestic security against terrorism: This part gives the President and Attorney General more latitude to involve the military in special cases and tasks the FBI with administering the Terrorist Screening Center funded by the ACT.  Title I also condemns discrimination and hostile actions taken against persons because of their religion or ethnicity.

Title II: Surveillance procedures:  “Enhanced Surveillance Procedures” These words sum up the most controversial measures contained within the Patriot Act, which allows “Big Brother” to do his watching with little public scrutiny.  So called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) warrants, secret warrants often obtained after the surveillance has already been done smacks of shady business that many people just do not trust the Government to perform with impartiality and within the bounds of the rules and laws of the country.  The intent of this part of the Patriot Act was to keep an eye on terrorists, spies, and potential terrorists and spies, but also includes US citizens falling into the same net as a “by catch.”  Additional Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judges were authorized to handle the increased load of warrants.  The ability of the US Government to spy on just about everybody and everything became almost absolute, and you would never know who was watching and listening.

Basic diagram of how the alleged wiretapping was accomplished. From EFF court filings

Title III: Anti-money-laundering to prevent terrorism: The provisions of this section expand upon previous US laws covering banking and money handling, and provide for enhanced prosecution of government officials involved in facilitating money laundering as well as corporate and private individuals.  This is the part of the law that prohibits undeclared transport of cash at or above $10,000 into or out of the United States and demands banks and other financial institutions report deposits and other transactions of $10,000 or more.  (Personally, since I do not seem in any danger of exceeding this amount any time soon, the whole thing is okay with me!)

Title IV: Border security: This section amends the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 to give the executive branch more far reaching powers to expand border security and implement such measures as needed to ensure the safety of our borders.  Hiring more INS (now called ICE) and Border Patrol employees and providing for more overtime payments are part of this section.  This title also allows the deportation of any alien person in the United States that is part of or ever was part of a terrorist organization, including the family of that person.  It also covers any person engaged in any form of espionage.

Seal and left sleeve patch of the United States Border Patrol

Title V: Removing obstacles to investigating terrorism: The best part of this section has to be the authorization of financial rewards to be granted to people that assist in identifying and prosecuting terrorists.  Subtitles concerning financial fraud and computer crimes are included as well.  Educational institutions are required to provide educational history data of persons named by the Government and are in turn given immunity from any civil liability for providing such student information.  A controversial portion of this section includes liberal rules about the use of certain administrative types of subpoenas called  National Security Letters for which the suspect has no way of challenging the subpoena.

Title VI: Victims and families of victims of terrorism:  More or less an amendment to the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) in order to change and facilitate the handling of victim compensation by the Government, the changes seek to ensure fast payment to victims and public safety officers injured by terrorists within 30 days of applying for such funds.  Victims of terrorism and mass violence both benefit from these changes and provides for funding state programs of victim of crimes assistance.

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Title VII: Increased information sharing for critical infrastructure protection: This part of the Patriot Act is meant to ameliorate the lack of communication between intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the US to allow for a freer and more complete flow of information and intelligence between those agencies.

Title VIII: Terrorism criminal law: This section redefines terrorism racketeering and other legal definitions to bring the criminal code and legal language up to date.  Some forms of assassination and kidnapping, for example, are now considered “terrorist acts.”  Including attacks on transportation and infrastructure systems as terrorism, cyber-terrorism, certain biological and chemical procedures all have become legally acts of terrorism.  New penalties and prosecutorial channels were developed in this section.

The website of Air Botswana, defaced by a group calling themselves the “Pakistan Cyber Army”

Title IX: Improved intelligence: This part expands the role of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and provides for information sharing and cooperation between US intelligence services and US law enforcement services such as the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department, including the sharing of information about banking and money handling by targets of interest.

Title X: Miscellaneous: This section addresses the myriad of other definitions, situations, factors and such that do not fall neatly into the categories listed above, such as Civil Rights abuses against the Department of Justice.  The intricacies of computer usage and biometrics are also addressed, among others.

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968

For all the criticism of the Patriot Act that you may hear, both sides of the political spectrum have supported it enough to keep it on the books.  Even the though of our Government keeping tabs on all of us is not enough to dissuade the majority of Americans from supporting the measures involved.  Below we ask you some questions about what you think about the Patriot Act.

Questions for Students (and others): Can the US Federal Government be trusted with the immense powers involved in the Patriot Act?  Was the Patriot Act a necessary measure to ensure our safety or merely a feel good window dressing to kid ourselves into thinking we were doing something to remain safe?  What do you think of the TSA?  How about the “No Fly List?”  What other measures could our government take to protect us against terrorism that would not intrude too far on our rights?

The flag of the Transportation Security Administration

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Finan, Christopher. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Beacon Press, 2007.

From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America (Paperback)


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Hayden, Michael. Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. Penguin Books, 2016.

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror (Paperback)


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Kaplan, Fred. Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.  Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (Paperback)


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The featured image in this article, a photograph taken by SFC Thomas R. Roberts of President Bush, standing with firefighter Bob Beckwith, addressing rescue workers at Ground Zero in New York, September 14, 2001,  is from the FEMA Photo Library.  This image is a work of a Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As works of the U.S. federal government, all FEMA images are in the public domain in the United States. Additional media usage information may be found at https://www.fema.gov/photo-video-audio-use-guidelines

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.