Since its passage 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the
USA Patriot Act has been a lightning rod for controversy. It has taken center
stage in a vigorous debate over the proper balance between national security and
Supporters contend the Patriot Act is responsible for preventing further
catastrophes. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in Congress in April 2004 that
“the biggest hero to emerge from the hearings before the 9/11 Commission has
been the Patriot Act.” In March 2006, President George W. Bush credited the
Patriot Act with helping "break up
terror cells in Ohio, New York, Oregon and Virginia."
Detractors counter that the Patriot Act represents a loss of individual
liberty and a naked grasp for power by the executive branch of government,
particularly over the judicial branch. Robert Levy, senior fellow in
constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, has
written that the Patriot Act represents "the looming sacrifice of civil
liberties at the altar of national security."
Congress approved the Patriot Act by an overwhelming margin shortly after the
infamous terrorist acts. The House voted 357-66 in favor of the measure, while
the Senate voted 98-1 with only Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., dissenting.
President Bush signed the behemoth bill into law on Oct. 26, 2001. The name of
the act perhaps helped ensure its easy passage; USA PATRIOT stands for Uniting
and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept
and Obstruct Terrorism.
The massive law, 342 pages long, amends at least 15 separate federal laws,
including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the Electronic
Communication Privacy Act of 1986, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the
Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
The law permits roving wiretaps and so-called “sneak and peek” warrants, adds
new terrorist crimes, knocks down the wall between foreign and domestic
intelligence, amends the definition of domestic terrorism and makes many other
changes too numerous to catalog.
John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, has
written that “the Patriot Act violates at least six of the ten original
amendments known as the Bill of Rights — the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth,
Seventh and Eighth Amendments — and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth as
Most of the criticism of the Patriot Act concerns its seeming infringements
on Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials
from engaging in “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Normally, the Fourth
Amendment requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant based on
probable cause before searching a person’s home. The standards are relaxed under
FISA if the subject is suspected of being, say, a foreign spy. The Patriot Act
lowers those standards even more.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups mounted a hearty campaign
of opposition against the Patriot Act, challenging several of its provisions in
federal courts. As time passed, more members of Congress also objected to
certain provisions of the law. This criticism led to modifications of several
provisions. At the same time the executive branch and some legislative leaders
called for a strengthening of some provisions. They also called for certain
provisions in the Patriot Act that were set to expire at the end of 2005 to be
Though most objections to the Patriot Act center on the
Fourth Amendment, some critics contend that the act also intrudes deeply on
fundamental First Amendment rights. The ACLU
filed a lawsuit
in July 2003 on behalf of six groups, many of which provide some form of support
to Muslims in America, challenging Section 215 of the Patriot Act. In Muslim
Community Association of Ann Arbor v. Ashcroft, the plaintiffs contended
that Section 215 violates the First Amendment.
Section 215 of the law allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “make an
application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things for an
investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information … providing that such
investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis
of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.”
Previously, the FBI could only obtain business records from vehicle rental
agencies, transport services, storage facilities and similar places. Now,
Section 215 allows the government to obtain “any tangible things,” which can
include library records, health-care records, logs of Internet service providers
and other documents and papers.
Section 215 also provides for judicial oversight of all FBI requests for such
information. But there is a big dispute between the government and civil
liberties advocates over how the language of the act on this point should be
The act says the government must make an application for “any tangible
things” to a FISA court judge or U.S. magistrate judge. The act reads:
“Upon application … the judge shall enter an ex parte (in the
interest of one side only) order as requested, or as modified, approving the
release of records if the judge finds that the application meets the
requirements of this section” (50 USC 1861 — at (c)(1)).
The requirements presumably would include the provision that “such
investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis
of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution” (50 USC 1861
— at (a)(1)), as mentioned above.
However, according to the ACLU, the FISA court merely rubber-stamps all
requests because all the FBI has to show is that the records are sought for an
authorized investigation. The wording of the law appears to allow for more
discretionary review than suggested by the ACLU, but it is safe to say that the
standards for allowing release of information are minimal. A judge who reviews
an application has less room to reject the request than in other situations.
There is no requirement for a showing of probable cause, meaning the FBI does
not have to show any reason that it believes the target of the surveillance
order is engaged in criminal or terrorist activity. That person could be
Section 215 also provides: “No person shall disclose to any other person
(other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this
section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained
tangible things under this section.” This gag order would prevent a library, for
example, from ever notifying its patrons that the government has requested
information from it under Section 215.
In legal papers in its lawsuit, the ACLU wrote that this “gag provision is
manifestly inconsistent with the First Amendment.” In an earlier publication,
Acts: The FBI’s Power to Rifle Through Your Records and Personal Belongings
Without Telling You, the ACLU wrote: “If the First Amendment means
anything, it means that the government cannot impose an indefinite gag order
without reference to the particular facts of the particular case.”
Others contended the ACLU’s attack against Section 215 was overblown. Heather
Mac Donald, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute, argued in an August 2003
column in The Washington Post that “Section 215 merely gives anti-terror
investigators the same access to such records as criminal grand juries, with the
added protection of judicial oversight.” She rejects the staunch opposition to
the provision by many in the library community, writing: “By publicly borrowing
library books, patrons forfeit any constitutional protections they may have had
in their reading habits.”
However, Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney at the national office,
insisted that Section 215 violated the First Amendment. “If people think that
the government is looking over their shoulders to see what books they are
reading or what Web sites they are visiting, many are not going to read those
books or visit those Web sites,” he says. “Some of this speech that will be
silenced is speech that is important to an open democracy.”
“Many provisions of the Patriot Act are absolutely a First Amendment threat,”
Jaffer said. “Often there is a greater chill on free expression not from direct
censorship but from government monitoring.
The government filed a motion to dismiss the Section 215 case, contending the
plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the section. Arguments were heard in
December 2003 before U.S. District Judge Denise P. Hood in the Eastern District
Judge Hood did not issue an opinion until Sept. 29, 2006. In Muslim
Community Association of Ann Arbor v. Ashcroft, Hood denied the government’s
motion to dismiss on standing grounds. However, she noted that Section 215 had
been modified significantly since the lawsuit filing. When Congress passed
amendments to the Patriot Act in March 2006, it substantially amended Section
215. Under current law (50 U.S.C. 1861(a)), a person who receives a request for
such records may disclose the request to “an attorney to obtain legal advice or
assistance with respect to the production of things in response to the order.”
The new law also requires the FBI to include in its record requests “a statement
of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible
things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation.”
Hood gave the plaintiffs 30 days to decide whether they would like to amend
their original complaint to challenge the constitutionality of the new version
of Section 215. On Oct. 27, 2006, the ACLU announced that it would withdraw its
lawsuit over Section 215.
“While the reauthorized Patriot Act is far from perfect, we succeeded in
stemming the damage from some of the Bush administration’s most reckless
policies,” said ACLU associate legal director Ann Beeson in a press
release. “The ACLU will continue to monitor how the government applies the
broad Section 215 power and we will challenge unconstitutional demands on a
Another legal challenge
Another provision of the Patriot Act
broadened the definition in federal law of providing “material support or
resources” to terrorist organizations. That provision, Section 805(a)(2)(B),
added “expert assistance or advice” to the definition of “material support” to
Five organizations and two U.S. citizens (including a former administrative
law judge) challenged
the provision as unlawful. These plaintiffs sought to provide support to the
lawful, nonviolent activities of Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam, two groups that, during the Clinton administration,
then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had designated as “foreign terrorist
The plaintiffs argued that the ban on “expert advice and assistance” was
unconstitutionally vague and could bar protected First Amendment activity, such
as assisting one of the groups in petitioning the United Nations, providing
legal assistance in negotiating peace agreements or advising on international
law. In Humanitarian Law Project v. Ashcroft, No. CV 03-6107 (ABC), U.S.
District Judge Audrey B. Collins agreed that the “expert advice and assistance”
language was too vague.
“The ‘expert advice or assistance’ Plaintiffs seek to offer includes advocacy
and associational activities protected by the First Amendment, which Defendants
concede are not prohibited under the USA Patriot Act,” Judge Collins wrote.
“Despite this, the USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert
advice and assistance which is prohibited, and instead bars the provision of all
expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature.” Collins, however,
declined to find that the provision was substantially overbroad on its face:
“The Court therefore declines to apply the ‘strong medicine’ of the overbreadth
doctrine, finding instead that as-applied litigation will provide a sufficient
safeguard for any potential First Amendment violation.”
“This provision is one of the most extreme of the Patriot Act’s many terms,
because it criminalizes pure speech, without any requirement that the government
show that the speech has any connection to furthering terrorism,” said David
Cole, a Georgetown law professor who represents the plaintiffs in the case.
“That will by definition chill protected First Amendment activity.”
In June 2004, a jury in Idaho acquitted Sami Al-Hussayen, a graduate student
accused of providing “expert assistance” to terrorists through a Web site. The
jury reached its verdict after seven days of deliberation. "The message is that
the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country," said David
Nevin, lead attorney for Al-Hussayen. "The system worked."
Section 505 and the National Security Letter lawsuit
Patriot Act provision that led to federal court challenges was Section 505,
which expanded the FBI's authority to issue National Security Letters demanding
customer records from businesses. Before Section 505 took effect, the FBI could
issue NSLs only on those suspected to be terrorists or foreign spies. Now,
according to the ACLU, the FBI could use its powers to obtain information on
anyone. Similar to Section 215, Section 505 also prohibited individuals who
received requests under the section from disclosing that fact to anyone. Critics
charge that this gag-order provision violates First Amendment rights.
“Before the Patriot Act, the FBI could use this invasive authority only
against suspected terrorists and spies,” Jaffer said in an ACLU news
release. “Now it can issue National Security Letters to obtain information
about anyone at all. This should be disturbing to all of us.”
Two ACLU lawsuits alleged that the FBI’s NSL powers, as amended by Section
505 of the Patriot Act, violate the First Amendment by giving the FBI the power
to force the disclosure of sensitive, personal information without adequate
In Doe v.
Ashcroft (2004), a federal district court in New York ruled that Section
505 violated the First Amendment. The judge wrote that “Democracy abhors undue
secrecy” and that “an unlimited government warrant to conceal, effectively a
form of secrecy per se, has no place in our open society.”
v. Gonzales (2005), a federal district court judge in Connecticut lifted
a gag order imposed on librarians who had received a National Security Letter
from the FBI asking for records from a library computer. In September 2005,
federal district Judge Janet Hall lifted the gag order.
The government appealed both decisions to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals. On May 23, 2006, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit issued its
opinion, styled Doe v. Gonzales, which dealt with both the New York and
The 2nd Circuit remanded the New York case back to the federal trial court,
because Section 505 had been substantially amended by the USA Patriot
Improvement and Reauthorization Act. “The Reauthorization Act has substantially
shifted the legal footing on which Doe I stands,” the court wrote. The appeals
court asked that the trial court conduct a First Amendment analysis of the
revised version of National Security letter provision.
As for the decision from Connecticut, the 2nd Circuit determined that the
case was moot, or no longer active, because the government had conceded that the
librarians could reveal their identities. The appeals court had originally kept
the gag order in place in September 2005 while the government appealed. However,
the government later conceded that the librarians could reveal themselves.
Legislative, community responses
The Patriot Act engendered
opposition at the local and state level, as many members of the public and local
legislators expressed concerns about particular provisions of the act. At the
federal level, several provisions introduced in Congress would have changed or repudiate parts of the Patriot Act. These measures, no longer active, included:
1157 — Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003 (introduced March 6, 2003, by
Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
- S. 1695
— Patriot Oversight Restoration Act of 2003 (introduced Oct. 1, 2003, by Sen.
Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.).
3171 — Benjamin Franklin True Patriot Act (introduced Sept. 24, 2003, by
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio).
- S. 1507
— Library, Bookseller, and Personal Records Privacy Act (introduced July 31,
2003, by Sen. Feingold).
- S. 1709
— Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003 (introduced Oct. 2, 2003, by Sen.
Larry Craig, R-Idaho).
The Justice Department drafted another bill, dubbed Patriot
II, called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. Copies of the
measure were leaked, which led to widespread opposition. The proposed Patriot II contained many provisions that caused alarm among
free-speech and privacy advocates. For example, under the measure, federal
agents would not need a subpoena to obtain consumer credit records. Under
current law, they do need a subpoena. The measure would have provided less
public access to information about terrorist detainees and related
investigations. Amid the outcry over such provisions, the Patriot II measure
apparently was never formally introduced in Congress.
The Security and Freedom Ensured Act of 2003, called SAFE, sought to amend
some of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. This bill, which
had bipartisan support, would have amended Section 215 by requiring the FBI to have
“specific and articulable facts” connecting records to a foreign agent. It also
would have amended several other provisions of the Patriot Act. In April 2004, Sen. Craig said in Congress:
“I am not seeking to repeal any provision of the Patriot Act but rather to
salvage it by making necessary, albeit minor, amendments to it in order to
safeguard individual liberties while preserving the very important law
enforcement authorities it grants.”
A revised version of the SAFE Act was introduced in 2005. Also, in summer 2005, the USA Patriot and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2005 (H.R. 3199) was introduced. This lengthy legislation, signed into law in March 2006, contained elements of the SAFE Act in that it modified some of the controversial provisions. However, it also made permanent several other provisions of the original Patriot Act. The act represented a compromise measure of sorts between those on the one hand who wanted to extend and expand the provisions in the Patriot Act and those who wanted to modify.
In addition to legislative activity, many communities have become involved by
passing resolutions opposing parts of the Patriot Act. According to the Bill of Rights Defense
Committee, 408 communities had passed measures opposing the Patriot Act as
of November 2006. At least five states — Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Montana and
Vermont — have passed statewide resolutions.
For example, Montana's
resolution opposes several provisions of the act and states that the “59th
Montana Legislature urges the Montana Congressional Delegation to vigorously
oppose any pending and all future federal legislation if the legislation
infringes on the civil rights and civil liberties of American citizens.”
The opposition did not stop the U.S. Congress from renewing most provisions
of the Patriot Act in March 2006. Section 224 had provided that several
provisions of the act would expire on Dec. 31, 2005, unless Congress renewed
Later that month, President Bush signed into law the reauthorization law that
made many provisions of the Patriot Act permanent. It extended the sunset period
of the controversial Section 215 for four more years. Perhaps because of
widespread opposition to parts of the law, the act also included many provisions
designed to ensure a level of civil liberties protections.
The debate over how to properly calibrate the balance
between security and liberty will never end, particularly in this age of global
terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks showed
that government leaders must act to ensure that we can protect our nation from
al-Qaida and other terrorists. However, many believe that the government must
not sacrifice civil liberties in the well-meaning efforts of increased
In 1928, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his dissenting
opinion in the wiretapping case Olmstead
v. United States (1928): “Experience should teach us to be most on our
guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born
to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded
rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of
zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
Many people believe that government officials have encroached on individual
liberty by passing the Patriot Act and subsequent expansions and amendments out
of well-meaning motives — to combat the undoubted evils of terrorism in the age
of al-Qaida. However, questions persist as to whether at least some of these
provisions were undertaken with a proper understanding of the Constitution and
the First Amendment.
Updated November 2006
Broader law sought against 'material support' for terrorism