The Patriot Act

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The Patriot Act


The USA PATRIOT Act or “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” was signed into law without legislative committee debate on October 26, 2001. Despite the fact that Senator Russ Feingold was the only senator to vote against the bill, it was the subject of much public debate from the outset, and there continues to be little agreement about its implications for law enforcement and civil liberties in the United States (White, 33).

The voluminous bill is little understood, and some of its most radical aspects were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. However, the bill expands the powers of investigation first brought about through the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO), along with providing significant financial and institutional support to law enforcement for intelligence-gathering efforts. The better-known aspects of the bill are those that permit third-party searches of personal data such as financial or travel history and library use without notification to the subject under investigation; allowance for “sneak and peak” searches with significant delays in notification to the subject; and the dismantling of Watergate-era firewalls between law enforcement and intelligence gathering (Chang, 79). Finally, the bill might be most dangerous to immigrants, who can be detained—based on suspicion alone of association with a terrorist organization for an indeterminate amount of time—or deported altogether.

The most troubling aspect of the bill, however, may be the lack of public information about how and why the various aspects of the law were enacted and the nonpublic manner in which the powers created under the bill may be exercised. Despite widespread public concern and several ongoing court challenges, the USA PATRIOT Act was subject to an “Enhancement” Act in 2003 and was renewed, without major revisions, in 2005 (Cole, 52).


The most controversial provisions increased access to all forms of electronic and nonelectronic communication and records, eliminated a need for probable cause in “sneak and peak” searches, gave the secretary of the treasury the authority to regulate financial transactions linked to terrorism, and gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (in concert with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE]) broad discretion in questioning, detaining, and deporting immigrants relative to terrorism investigations (White, 34).

The most negative racial/ethnic impact was the profiling and severe curtailment of the rights of certain temporary visitors, permanent resident aliens, and visa overstayers in the United States. The Department of Justice classified young male immigrants of certain national origins and Islamic religious affiliation as targets for interviews and special registration. National origins targeted included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The FBI set out to interview 5,000 men between 18 and 33 years of age who had entered the United States from countries thought to harbor cells of Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. These interviews were ...
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