On this day in 2001, President George W. Bush signs the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism law drawn up in response to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Just 45 days after the attacks of September 11, the Congress passed the Patriot Act nearly unanimously in the Senate (98-1) and easily in the House of Representatives (357-66).

The USA PATRIOT Act, as it is officially known, is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” The stated goals of the Patriot Act were to strengthen domestic security and broaden the powers of law-enforcement agencies in order to identify and stop future terrorists from hitting America again.

There have been many people critical of the controversial act and there, of course, two sides of the coin. Supporters claim that it gave the government the tools it needed to identify, investigate and arrest terrorists. Some argued that the US didn’t have the same rules for terrorists that it did in investigating the Mafia. Critics claim that this act gave the government too much power, threatened our civil liberties, and undermined the very democracy that it claims to protect. But before going further, some quick background information on it.

Background and beginnings: On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four aircraft taking off on the East Coast. Two of those aircraft were flown into both of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another flew into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The fourth was en route to Washington when the plane’s passengers attempted to take over the flight back from the terrorists after learning what happened to the other aircraft and in the ensuing melee, the plane crashed into the rural countryside of Pennsylvania. Over 3000 Americans died.

Just a couple of days later, the White House announced that the terrorists were from Al Qaeda. The terrorists were headquartered in Afghanistan but had cells all over the world. The hijackers had support cells working here in the United States. The Global War on Terrorism had begun.

Not long after that US Attorney General John Ashcroft submitted to Congress the changes the government was requesting in regards to investigating terrorist activity. Many of these changes were resisted by the Congress in the past and had been pushed back, but 9/11 changed all of that.

The Patriot Act sailed thru the Senate 98-1, with the only nay vote coming from Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis). It then sailed easily thru the House with a 357-66 vote. The final bill encompassed 342 pages of legalese and changed many of the existing laws. Most of the items that Ashcroft and the Justice Department requested were adopted.

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The intention of the law, in President Bush’s words, was to “enhance the penalties that will fall on terrorists or anyone who helps them.” The act increased intelligence agencies’ ability to share information and lifted restrictions on communications surveillance, which includes everyday communication between citizens.

Law enforcement officials were given much more leeway in what they were allowed to do to fight financial counterfeiting, smuggling and money laundering schemes that funded terrorist organizations. The Patriot Act allows the FBI increased powers to access personal information such as medical and financial records and superseded all state laws.

In the uncertainty following 9/11, some advocates for the Patriot Act felt like the bill didn’t go far enough. Others such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that this gave the government far too much power to curtail civil liberties and would give the government carte blanche to investigate ordinary Americans with no checks and balances reminiscent of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some aspects of the Patriot Act were set to expire in 2005, but in 2006, President Bush renewed the so-called “sunset clauses” that were expiring.

The Patriot Act: President Bush signed the bill into law on October 26. He spoke about fighting a new danger “a threat like no other our Nation has ever faced.” He also sought to allay some fears by stating that  the Patriot Act “upholds and respects the civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.”

The term “domestic terrorism in the new law is defined actions that are taking place within the United States that are dangerous to human life and are designed to:

  • to intimidate or coerce a civilian population
  • to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion
  • to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

While Congress has debated several features of the Patriot Act, including the controversial “National Security Letters”, how long the FBI can hold records, and forcing the government to provide more information and explanation for their reasons for requesting search warrants, surveillance or subpoenas, it has remained intact.

Has it Worked? The biggest question is just that, has the Patriot Act worked? Are we safer as a nation now than before? The entire basis of the Patriot Act from the government was that in the face of terrorist threats, Americans must balance their freedom with the need for security. Is that fair?

Certain countries such as Israel live in a very dangerous place where terrorist attacks happen far too frequently and the people live in a perpetual fishbowl it seems. They’ve balanced the very real need for security with the civil liberties they enjoy, where they are freer than any other country in the Middle East.

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Since 9/11, several terrorist attacks from organizations such as  Al Qaeda or the Islamic State have been thwarted before they could begin. Is it because of the Patriot Act itself or just a heightened awareness after 9/11 and the resultant better communication between agencies, which failed us in 2001? The Justice Department claims that the roving wiretaps and surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act has been instrumental in defeating terrorist operations before they begin.

Critics of the law point to one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin said, “those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety.”

Critics even worked in a quote by none other than Julius Caesar about being wary of being whipped into a patriotic frenzy by the war and the law. Later it was proven to be false, Caesar never did say that, but dead men and politicians always make for great quote machines. So while JC never did utter these words….we’ll give whoever did write this, their due (they were brilliant):

Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind. And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and
blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”

The scope of the government’s surveillance collection was revealed when Edward Snowden released the extent of the NSA’s collection of American citizens’ communications. Those programs remain intact.

While some in Congress want to repeal or amend it others such as Senator John McCain, (R-AZ) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have continued to argue that had those laws been in place in 2001, 9/11 may have never happened.

The debate will go on and as events change our perceptions, this too shall change. One way or another.

Photo: Wikipedia