The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 is a far-reaching piece of legislation that was designed to make it easier for the United States to detect and act on potential security threats. It is more commonly known by its acronym, the USA PATRIOT Act, and may be colloquially called the “Patriot Act.” The contents of the act were extremely controversial, especially among liberal Americans and people who are concerned about their civil liberties.
The Patriot Act was signed into law on 26 October 2001, a little over a month after the 11 September attacks. Many critics of the act have pointed out that it was not heavily debated in Congress, and that because it was hastily pushed through, some of the language is extremely vague. Originally, the act had what is known as a “sunset clause,” meaning that it would expire in four years. In 2006, most of the law was reauthorized and made permanent, after more extensive debate in the House and Senate.
Under the Patriot Act, American law enforcement personnel have far more authority than they did before. This change in authority is designed to ensure that law enforcement can act quickly and decisively to apprehend terrorists. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, many figures in government wanted to grant law enforcement more powers to observe unusual activity and act upon it. Many of the terms in the act could be perceived as detrimental to civil liberties, a major concern for some Americans.
Surveillance capabilities were greatly expanded under the act, which also increased regulation of financial transactions which are suspected to be tied to terrorist activity. It also greatly enhanced the ability of law enforcement to monitor foreign nationals in the United States, deporting them if it is deemed necessary. Domestic and international intelligence gathering were enlarged in scope, and the act also allows law enforcement to execute warrants for searches and wiretapping without notifying the object of the warrant. It also increased the scope of authority on domestic terrorism, leading to serious consequences for radical organizations like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
One of the more controversial sections of the Patriot Act was Section 215, which allows law enforcement to gather records, including a person's library checkout history or Internet purchase history. The American Library Association expressed strong opposition to this section of the act, with many librarians pledging to refuse to surrender such data on their patrons. The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed dissatisfaction with much of the language in the act, especially language which permits “sneak and peek” searches, clandestine searches executed on private property.