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USA PATRIOT Act of 2001

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The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 is a 342-page, sprawling piece of legislation that contains more than 150 sections and amends more than 15 federal laws. The law's full name is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, hence the acronym USA PATRIOT Act. It deals primarily with combating terrorism and gives the Executive Branch of the federal government more tools to fight suspected terrorist activity, but it also aroused the anger of civil libertarians. Critics of the act have charged that the government gained the power to investigate and detain persons with little oversight from the courts.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, U.S. political leaders sought to address terrorism with new vigor. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft presented Congress with proposed legislation on September 17, 2001, that focused on intelligence gathering, immigration, criminal justice, and money laundering. The administration sought new powers to conduct searches of people suspected of terrorism; to detain and deport persons suspected of terrorist involvement; and to remove statutes of limitations on terrorism. In addition, the administration wanted the Justice Department to have the power to place wiretaps on the phones and computers of anyone suspected of terrorism. This initial proposal became the framework for the USA PATRIOT Act, which was first introduced in the House of Representatives on October 2. A similar law was introduced in the Senate on October 4, and on October 12 it passed on a vote of 96–1, with only Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) dissenting. The House passed its version the next day on another lopsided vote, 337–79. The bills incorporated what the administration wanted, but it also gave the government the authority to conduct secret searches of a suspect's property. The two bodies resolved differences between their bills, and both houses passed the act on October 25. President Bush signed the bill into law on October 26. Because of objections about the scope of the authority given to the executive branch, Congress placed a "sunset" clause in the act. Many of the provisions would expire in five years if not re-authorized by Congress.

The act sets out the following purposes: "to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and … other purposes." It is divided into ten main categories called titles. They include enhancing domestic security against terrorism; enhancing surveillance procedures; abating money laundering; protecting the borders; removing obstacles to investigating terrorism; providing for victims of terrorism, public safety officers, and their families; increasing information sharing; strengthening the criminal laws against terrorism; improving intelligence; and miscellaneous provisions.

Title I, on enhancing domestic security against terrorism, sets up a Counterterrorism Fund in the U.S. Treasury and appropriates money for combating terrorism to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Technical Support Center. It also increases the president's authority to seize the property of foreign persons, organizations, or countries that the president determines have planned, authorized, aided, or engaged in hostilities or attacks against the United States. Finally, Title I instructs the U.S. Secret Service to develop a national network of electronic-crime task forces to investigate electronic crimes, including, but not limited to, potential terrorist attacks.

Title II, which concerns enhancing surveillance procedures, contains some of the act's most controversial provisions. Prior to the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the federal government could conduct wiretaps with limited restrictions under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) only when foreign intelligence was the primary purpose. Now, the government could use FISA wiretaps, which lack certain constitutional protections, to conduct criminal investigations as long as foreign intelligence is a "significant" purpose of the investigation. Title II gives law enforcement broad authority to share acquired information with other federal departments. The act allows FISA authorities to compel an Internet service provider to turn over information about a user's e-mail activity, and a business to turn over personal information that simply is related to a criminal investigation. Finally, Title II allows authorities executing search warrants to delay notice of the search under certain circumstances, thus limiting a citizen's ability to assert his or her constitutional rights before the search occurs.

Title III contains provisions to fight money laundering, as many terrorist groups finance their operations with money received from illegal drug and smuggling activities. Title IV, on border control, authorizes appropriations necessary to triple the number of U.S. Border Patrol, Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel working on the Canadian border. Title IV also allows the Secretary of State to designate domestic terrorist organizations, defined as any organization that has ever used a weapon or dangerous device to cause substantial damage to property. The designation renders a group's non-citizen members inadmissible to the United States and makes payment of membership dues a deportable offense.

Within Title III, Section 411 permits immigrants to be found inadmissible to the United States for speaking in a way that undermines antiterrorism efforts. Section 412 allows the federal government to imprison aliens who are suspected of terrorism, for up to seven days before charging them with a crime or beginning deportation proceedings. The detention can go on indefinitely under certain circumstances. Section 416 allows the government to require schools to turn over information pertaining to foreign students for analysis and investigation.

Title V of the USA PATRIOT Act enhances the federal government's ability to offer rewards for information that is valuable to terrorism investigations. Title VI establishes and funds assistance programs for victims of terrorism, public-safety officers, and their families. This provision set up the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 to pay the victims of the terrorist attacks and their families compensation. The Justice Department was authorized to appoint a special master, who would review claims and decide how much each victim or family would receive from the fund. Title VII expands the government's regional information-sharing system to help federal, state, and local law enforcement to respond more effectively to terrorist attacks.

Title VIII amends the U.S. criminal code to add material pertaining to terrorism, including sections on terrorism against mass transportation systems, the definition of domestic terrorism, the prohibition against harboring terrorists, and material support for terrorism. This title also eliminates the statute of limitations for many crimes involving terrorism. Title IX expresses Congress's intent for the Central Intelligence Agency to gather intelligence concerning potential terrorism. Finally, Title X contains many miscellaneous provisions, including the intent of Congress that "in the quest to identify, locate, and bring to justice the perpetrators and sponsors of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans … should be protected."

Since its enactment the law has aroused controversy over its surveillance and detention provisions. The September 11 fund has generated bitterness and legal action by some of the families of the terrorist victims. In April 2003, some members of Congress introduced legislation that sought to repeal the sunset provisions, thereby making the entire law permanent.

Civil libertarians continue to object to the surveillance powers given to the government. The act authorized federal officials to obtain wiretapping orders that allow them to follow a suspect to any telephone the person uses. Prior law permitted wiretaps only on specified telephone lines. The act does allow persons to file civil lawsuits if the federal government discloses information gained through surveillance and wiretapping powers. The American Library Association has expressed concerns over provisions that require libraries to turn over the records of their patrons. Beyond supplying law enforcement with book information, libraries must share any requested information about a patron's Internet use on library computers.

Arab-American and Muslim leaders have objected to the immigration sections of the USA PATRIOT Act. The INS has detained hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrants for long periods of time without public acknowledgment. In addition, these leaders have complained that the use of the new surveillance powers has been targeted at their communities.

Kenneth R. Feinberg, the special master for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, has drawn criticism for the way he has awarded money. Because his rulings are not appealable to a court of law, these awards are final. In May 2003, a federal court upheld Feinberg's administration of the fund.

Further Readings

Cole, David, et al. 2002. Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security. New York: New Press.

Ewing, Alphonse. 2003. USA PATRIOT Act. Hauppage, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers.

Mailman, Stanley, et al. 2002. Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001: An Analysis. Newark, N.J.: LexisNexis.

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