The USA PATRIOT Act is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”, enacted by the hundredth and seventh United States Congress. Frank James Sensenbrenner introduced it in the House of Representatives under the code H.R. 3162 on the 23rd of October 2001, passing the House on the 24th, the Senate on the 25th and signed into US law on the 26th of October by President George W. Bush. (Smith, 2004).
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The Act gives significant leeway to law enforcement bodies to search email and telephone communications, financial, medical among other records. The Act eases restrictions regarding gathering of foreign intelligence within United States boundaries as well as expanding the authority of the Secretary of Treasury to regulate any financial transactions especially those that involve foreign entities and individuals alike. Moreover this act gives immigration and law enforcement authorities the prerogative to not only detain but also to deport immigrants carrying suspicion of acts related to terrorism. Under H.R. 3162, terrorism also encompasses domestic terrorism, thereby increasing the scope of activities to which this Act’s law enforcement agencies’ powers may be applied. (EPIC 2005).
The PATRIOT Act ended up as a compromise of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). The key acts that underwent a number of changes were the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), the Money Laundering Control Act (1986), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA 1986) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA 1978).
The Act’s Implications on US Citizens
Given that the USA Patriot Act gave rise to a myriad of legislative modifications that tellingly increased the investigative and surveillance powers of US law enforcement agencies, it had one major flaw. It doe not provide for a concrete structure of checks and balances, which protects civil liberties when facing such legislation. Herein lies the controversy. As indicated earlier, an outstanding feature of the Act is the absence of debate over its introduction. Following the 9/11 attacks, legislative proposals came into play within seven days of the terrorism act. Contrast this with provisions of the Act touching on electronic surveillance proposed prior to the attacks. They faced much debate and criticism in a bid to make them suitable to the United States context. The White House Chief of Staff from the year 1998 to 2001 questions the change in procedure. He termed it as regression to the era when the intelligence community monitored and harassed people who simple exercised their vital First Amendment right. The Attorney General at the time, John Ashcroft stated that anybody against the policies related to the act would in fact ’aid terrorists’ as well as supply America’s enemies with ammunition (ACLU 2003). Only one senator, Russ Feingold opposed the Patriot Act as he had his eye on its effects on immigrants’ civil liberties. To him, there would be disproportionate wielding of law enforcement agencies’ authority to profile and involve themselves in extensive electronic surveillance. He cited discrimination against immigrants from South Asian, Muslim and Arab countries. (EPIC, 2005).
There are considerable implications regarding online privacy. An illustration of this is the increased ability of the relevant authorities to authorize the installation of trap and trace equipment, pen registers as well as installation of devices usable in recording computer routing, system addressing and all signaling information. Considering that pen registers collect outgoing telephone phone numbers from a certain telephone line, it is evident that there is a clear affront to privacy rights. In line with this Act, the government can access student information or financial information without suspicion of breaking the law by simply indicating that the material in question is pertinent to ongoing criminal investigation. A court order is not a necessity in such cases. Law enforcement agencies can search a person’s business premises or home without the occupant’s owner’s permission or knowledge (EPIC, 2005).
EPIC terms the law unconstitutional, more so when there is incidental interception of private communication between law-abiding citizens. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF, finds the lowest standard applicable to wiretaps grants the Federal Bureau of Investigations the ticket to violate private communications among countless US citizens. The fact that H.R. 3162 allows law enforcement authorities access to citizens’ voicemail boxes via a mere search warrant is further illustration on the massive affront to privacy rights. To the EFF, there is strong belief the amendment possibly violate the US constitutions Fourth Amendment; previously if FBI agents illegally listened to voicemail, the material used was inadmissible in court (EFF, 2003, EPIC,2005).
Terrorism is a reality that faces great and small nations alike. Taking immediate action to the attacks of September 11, 2001 was a step in the right direction. However, it is clear that the lack of extensive debate led to clauses that are contentious to date. Internationally, the United States of America has been a model of freedom. The effect on privacy rights is eroding this perception, and domestically, it is affecting freedom of association, and causing heavy distrust among the people and their government. Amendments that are not properly done negate the gains fought for by the country’s Founding Fathers. These include respect for due process and belief in the rule of law. The focus should be on strengthening existing institutions so that the law protects the innocent and creates an environment of trust for all concerned.
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EFF Analysis of “Patriot II,” Provisions of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, Electronic Frontier Foundation. 2009.
Electronic Privacy Information Center (2005). The USA PATRIOT Act, 2009. Web.
Smith, C. (2004) Constitutional Rights: Myths and Realities. Belmont, CA: Thomson/ Wadsworth. ISBN: 0534639658.
The American Civil Liberties Union And The ACLU Foundation (2003), Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Assault on Civil Liberties, 2009. Web.