USA Patriot Act


Andrew Wendt, December 2016

On the morning of September 11th in the year 2001, 19 individuals aligned with the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization hijacked four planes bound for California from airports in the North Eastern United States, which include Logan Airport in Boston. At 8:46 am, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the Northern Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 collided into the Southern Tower of the same complex. After one and one half hours, both towers collapsed with many of the people still inside, who were trapped due to damaged elevators and stairwells. At 9:37 am American Airlines Flight 77 would slam into the US Pentagon. United Airlines Flight 93 would crash in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers aboard the plane over powered the hijackers who had intended to reach Washington DC. The attack killed 2,996, and injured around approximately 6,000 more. The attacks caused $10 billion in property damage and much more overall.

These attacks were planned for years and required rigorous execution. The US government quickly tried to assess the threat and find out who was responsible. The evidence pointed to a man named Osama (sometimes Usama) Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi of Yemeni descent, who along with 2 others founded the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Bin Laden, who had been motivated by the continued support of Israel had later been found to have orchestrated attacks on that morning. Originally, Bin Laden denied any involvement but 2 videos found in Afghanistan that same year would prove forehand knowledge of the attacks. On September 20, 2001 the Bush administration would declare the War on Terror, leading to the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq (under controversial means) in 2003, but also lesser known conflicts in both Yemen in 2001 and North-Western Pakistan in 2004.

While the need for revenge had been realized, the question of national security still needed to be addressed. On October 26, 2001 President Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act. USA PATRIOT is actually an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” The bill is responsible for the large extension of the Federal Government’s powers in the name of national security, amending a plethora of existing statutes passed in the 20th century, and also the creation of new laws. The Act was written by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-WI, and was introduced on October 23rd of 2001.This piece of proposed legislation was 342 pages long, containing 10 titles, and well over 200 sections. The law was approved by 98 senators, and 357 Representatives from the House on October 25th, less than two days after it had been submitted. The fly-by-night style of the passing of the bill has been heavily criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and many other civil rights groups. Many of those elected officials allegedly had not read the bill in its entirety and are subject to question of their understand of the Bill in its entirety. [1]

The purpose of the law was to Deter and Punish terrorist acts in the United States and abroad, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, promote cooperation between agencies, provide compensation to victims of terrorism (inspired by the Victims of Crime Act of 1984), and to establish a definitive answer to who is a terrorist. Starting off with the last of these purposes, the USA PATRIOT Act defines domestic terrorism as follows:
1 Involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
2 appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.
3 occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
This is the definition that is written into the law itself. This definition leaves some questions; like what if a peaceful protest becomes violent, would the whole crowd become labeled as terrorists? On the official website for the act, the Department of Justice tries to expel myths associated with the USA PATRIOT Act. It states that peaceful groups that stray from government policy can not be targeted. [2] However in the law itself, this is not mentioned. Critics of the law ask if this was the intention of the law, why not actually write it in there? They believe it is a tad misleading on the potential of the law.

Next, how will the act enhance law enforcement investigatory tools? This is of course written into the law; descriptions can be found under Title II. The sections that apply are as follows:
201+202 Authority to intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to terrorism, and computer fraud and abuse offenses
203b Authority to share electronic, wire and oral interception information
204 Clarification of intelligence exceptions from limitations on interception and disclosure of wire, oral, and electronic communications
212 Emergency disclosure of electronic communications to protect life and limb
214 Pen register and trap and trace authority under FISA
215 Access to records and other items under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
217 Interception of computer trespasser communications
220 Nationwide service of search warrants for electronic evidence
223 Civil liability for certain unauthorized disclosures
225 Immunity for compliance with FISA wiretap [3]

There is also a “Lone Wolf” provision added in 2004 to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which allows intelligence gathering on any individual not aligned with any terrorist organization. FISA is mentioned multiple times in the USA PATRIOT Act. FISA is a law passed in 1978 which originally established precedents on intelligence gathering on foreign powers and foreign agents who may be a threat to the country and its citizens. The law allows for the controversial methods of intelligence gathering, and was amended by the USA PATRIOT Act. The changes brought about in 2001 and 2004 extended the scope of FISA, as evidenced by Title II. Notice some of the expansions of power. The Title allows access to records and other items under FISA. These records include medical, financial, library checkouts, internet history, call history both incoming and outgoing, voice mail, e-mail, parcels, educational and any other records deemed relevant to national security. Section 505 amends FISA to allow a more broad use of National Security Letters (NSLs). A NSL is an administrative subpoena originally written into FISA which has been one of the largest centers of controversy among critics in the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. These NSLs are sent to an individual or organization and require the recipient to provide any information requested by the sender. The controversial aspect of the NSL is that it also denies the right of the recipient to contact an attorney or discuss the document with anyone else. Originally under FISA, only the Director or Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI could issue a NSL, but under the USA PATRIOT Act, NSLs can be issued by the Department of Defense and also the Central Intelligence Agency. As of 2006 those who receive a NSL can now challenge the gag order in court, and those cases have achieved moderate success. [4]

Lastly, one has to wonder if the the USA PATRIOT Act has the potency to keep Americans safe. As operations conducted under the PATRIOT act are considered classified under the law, it is difficult to access records of it’s successes and failures. However, the ACLU published an info-graphic which displays the break down based on information they found from multiple reports published by the DoJ. They claim that out of 192,499 NSLs issued between 2003 and 2006 only 1 led to a terror related conviction. The ACLU claims this conviction would have occurred without the use of the USA PATRIOT Act. The rest of the convictions, according to the ACLU, were related to money laundering, fraud, and immigration. The info-graphic also discusses the policy of delayed warrants to search and seizure of a suspects property, called “sneak and peak” searches. This policy allows law enforcement and anti terrorist organizations to find evidence without warning to the suspected terrorists, but critics would argue it violates a person’s 4th amendment rights.

The law has been critiqued on its ability to accurately identify terrorists and hold them accountable. For example in 2004 after the Madrid Train Bombings a man by the name of Brandon Mayfield from Oregon was arrested for connection to the bombing. Mr. Mayfield was a veteran of the US Army, an attorney, and a convert to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian National. He worked with the “Portland Seven,” a group accused of trying to travel Afghanistan to help the Taliban in 2003. The lifestyle of Brandon Mayfield threw red flags to the FBI and DoJ and may have indicated a connection to the attack in Spain. After the bombings, the FBI concluded a 100% fingerprint match to a bag containing the detonator of the bombs used in the attack. Approximately 20 other people also matched the fingerprints, with varying percentages of compatibility. Mayfield was detained for a month without notice, his wife had not been notified on his location, and the case was designated top secret, restricting knowledge to the public of the investigation. He would be released after the Spanish Police narrowed the attack to an Algerian National. [5]

Another example is A.J. Brown, a student of Durham Technical Community College. She is an anti-war activist who had been approached by the secret because of a poster. The poster was a statement about the amount of executions carried out under George W. Bush as Governor of Texas. The Agents revealed that they had been tipped off by another student of a poster that threatened then President Bush. The poster in question did not have the noose around Bush’s neck as previously believed. Brown was questioned for 40 minutes at her door by the agents until they proceeded to leave.[6]

The purpose and execution of the USA PATRIOT ACT has been debated for the last 15 years and will continue with such scrutiny in the future. Supporters of the act commend it for the security it provides, and for the enhancement of tools and cooperation by multiple agencies that previously had trouble working together based on jurisdiction disputes. On the other side, the opposition points to possible violations of the constitutional rights of the citizens, the way in which the law had been passed and the efficacy overall.

[1] Scheeres, Julia. ACLU Acts Against Patriot Act. October 18, 2002. Accessed October 31, 2016.
[2] The USA PATRIOT ACT: Preserving Life and Liberty. What Is the USA PATRIOT Act. United States Department of Justice Accessed October 31, 2016.
[3] United States. 2001. The USA PATRIOT Act: preserving life and liberty : uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism. [Washington, D.C.]: [U.S. Dept. of Justice].
[4] Abramson, Larry, and Maria Godoy. The Patriot Act: Key Controversies. NPR. February 14, 2006. Accessed October 31, 2016.
[5] United States. January 2006. US Department of Justice. Office of the Inspector General. A Review of the FBI’s Handling of the Brandon Mayfield Case. [Washington, D.C]: [U.S. Dept. of Justice].
[6] The USA PATRIOT ACT. Department of Government and Justice Studies. Appalachian State University. October 17, 2005. Accessed October 31, 2016.

Further Reading
Abramson, Larry, Maria Godoy, and Kate Gradowski. The Patriot Act: Justice Department Claims Success. NPR. July 20, 2005. Accessed October 31, 2016.

Kusha, Hamid (2005). The implications of USA PATRIOT Act for legitimate struggle against dictatorial regimes around the world. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. March 2005, Chicago, Illinois.

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