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The Act

The USA PATRIOT Act [PDF] was passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Act itself approved without amendment and little opposition in the House and Senate, included a provision for a counter-terrorism fund, fortified and amended existing government surveillance activities, altered the process for prosecuting certain terroristic activities and changed the substantive and procedural rights of non-US citizen aliens.

The USA PATRIOT Act expanded the scope of the federal government’s surveillance activities in records searches, secret searches and intelligence searches. Beyond this, the USA PATRIOT Act contained several provisions that affected the responsibilities of financial institutions in regards to due diligence monitoring and reporting of suspicious activities to prevent the domestic financing of terrorist operations.

A principal result of the surveillance overhaul, beyond the financial sector, was the relaxed reliance on previous forms of surveillance, which usually involved a more robust system of checks against overreaching authority. Roving wiretaps were one such method made obsolete by the USA PATRIOT Act; this type of wiretap permitted law enforcement to investigate suspected criminals for crimes such as racketeering by targeting their direct lines of communication. This focused surveillance was only permissible, however, after the law enforcement body had obtained prior approval from a federal court based on both jurisdiction and mode of communication. This type of accountability system was designed to favor personal liberty by encouraging strong proof of probable cause before the courts would authorize any type of surveillance. From a practical standpoint, this created obstacles that government officials and law enforcement were compelled to clear before they could justify infringing the liberty of an individual or group by invading their privacy. To some degree, the USA PATRIOT Act allowed law enforcement to circumvent this traditional procedural safeguard, which arguably opened an avenue for governmental abuse of discretion. Government actors under the Act could institute surveillance based on an activity as innocuous as internet preferences. A principal concern, given such wide latitude for surveillance, was the infringement of fundamental rights protected by the First and Fourth Amendments.

From another perspective, however, the broad justification for increasing surveillance activities enabled law enforcement and government officials to pursue potential terroristic activity without jeopardizing the lives of citizens by wasting time seeking judicial approval. This far-reaching feature of the Act, its proponents urged, was necessary to combat terrorist cells and operations that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to track with the nation’s outdated surveillance infrastructure. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the latter of these two rationales, which contemplated proactive efficiency over deliberative reactivity, prevailed in Congress’ passage of the Act.

The Patriot Act was espoused as an Act that would expedite the process of countering terroristic threats; Title V of the Act straightforwardly summarized this objective: “Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism.” The Act’s broad authorization to carry out its counter-terrorism mandate, however, resulted in the collection of data from third party sources, including metadata from phone companies, which led to a multi-agency report released in 2009 condemning the federal wiretapping program as warrantless and eventually culminated in the well-publicized declassification of NSA documents by Edward Snowden in 2013.