What is the USA PATRIOT Act?
Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the "USA/Patriot Act," an overnight revision of the nation's surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court.
Why Congress passed the Patriot Act
Most of the changes to surveillance law made by the Patriot Act were part of a longstanding law enforcement wish list that had been previously rejected by Congress, in some cases repeatedly. Congress reversed course because it was bullied into it by the Bush Administration in the frightening weeks after the September 11 attack.
The Senate version of the Patriot Act, which closely resembled the legislation requested by Attorney General John Ashcroft, was sent straight to the floor with no discussion, debate, or hearings. Many Senators complained that they had little chance to read it, much less analyze it, before having to vote. In the House, hearings were held, and a carefully constructed compromise bill emerged from the Judiciary Committee. But then, with no debate or consultation with rank-and-file members, the House leadership threw out the compromise bill and replaced it with legislation that mirrored the Senate version. Neither discussion nor amendments were permitted, and once again members barely had time to read the thick bill before they were forced to cast an up-or-down vote on it. The Bush Administration implied that members who voted against it would be blamed for any further attacks - a powerful threat at a time when the nation was expecting a second attack to come any moment and when reports of new anthrax letters were appearing daily.
Congress and the Administration acted without any careful or systematic effort to determine whether weaknesses in our surveillance laws had contributed to the attacks, or whether the changes they were making would help prevent further attacks. Indeed, many of the act's provisions have nothing at all to do with terrorism.
The Patriot Act increases the government's surveillance powers in four areas
The Patriot Act increases the government's surveillance powers in four areas:
1. Expanded access to personal records held by third parties
One of the most significant provisions of the Patriot Act makes it far easier for the authorities to gain access to records of citizens' activities being held by a third party. At a time when computerization is leading to the creation of more and more such records, Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to force anyone at all - including doctors, libraries, bookstores, universities, and Internet service providers - to turn over records on their clients or customers.
The result is unchecked government power to rifle through individuals' financial records, medical histories, Internet usage, bookstore purchases, library usage, travel patterns, or any other activity that leaves a record. Making matters worse:
Why the Patriot Act's expansion of records searches is unconstitutional
Section 215 of the Patriot Act violates the Constitution in several ways. It:
2. More secret searches
For centuries, common law has required that the government can't go into your property without telling you, and must therefore give you notice before it executes a search. That "knock and announce" principle has long been recognized as a part of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
The Patriot Act, however, unconstitutionally amends the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to allow the government to conduct searches without notifying the subjects, at least until long after the search has been executed. This means that the government can enter a house, apartment or office with a search warrant when the occupants are away, search through their property, take photographs, and in some cases even seize property - and not tell them until later.
Notice is a crucial check on the government's power because it forces the authorities to operate in the open, and allows the subject of searches to protect their Fourth Amendment rights. For example, it allows them to point out irregularities in a warrant, such as the fact that the police are at the wrong address, or that the scope of the warrant is being exceeded (for example, by rifling through dresser drawers in a search for a stolen car). Search warrants often contain limits on what may be searched, but when the searching officers have complete and unsupervised discretion over a search, a property owner cannot defend his or her rights.
Finally, this new "sneak and peek" power can be applied as part of normal criminal investigations; it has nothing to do with fighting terrorism or collecting foreign intelligence.
3. Expansion of the intelligence exception in wiretap law
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can secretly conduct a physical search or wiretap on American citizens to obtain evidence of crime without proving probable cause, as the Fourth Amendment explicitly requires.
A 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) created an exception to the Fourth Amendment's requirement for probable cause when the purpose of a wiretap or search was to gather foreign intelligence. The rationale was that since the search was not conducted for the purpose of gathering evidence to put someone on trial, the standards could be loosened. In a stark demonstration of why it can be dangerous to create exceptions to fundamental rights, however, the Patriot Act expanded this once-narrow exception to cover wiretaps and searches that DO collect evidence for regular domestic criminal cases. FISA previously allowed searches only if the primary purpose was to gather foreign intelligence. But the Patriot Act changes the law to allow searches when "a significant purpose" is intelligence. That lets the government circumvent the Constitution's probable cause requirement even when its main goal is ordinary law enforcement.
The eagerness of many in law enforcement to dispense with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment was revealed in August 2002 by the secret court that oversees domestic intelligence spying (the "FISA Court"). Making public one of its opinions for the first time in history, the court revealed that it had rejected an attempt by the Bush Administration to allow criminal prosecutors to use intelligence warrants to evade the Fourth Amendment entirely. The court also noted that agents applying for warrants had regularly filed false and misleading information. That opinion is now on appeal.
4. Expansion of the "pen register" exception in wiretap law
Another exception to the normal requirement for probable cause in wiretap law is also expanded by the Patriot Act. Years ago, when the law governing telephone wiretaps was written, a distinction was created between two types of surveillance. The first allows surveillance of the content or meaning of a communication, and the second only allows monitoring of the transactional or addressing information attached to a communication. It is like the difference between reading the address printed on the outside of a letter, and reading the letter inside, or listening to a phone conversation and merely recording the phone numbers dialed and received.
Wiretaps limited to transactional or addressing information are known as "Pen register/trap and trace" searches (for the devices that were used on telephones to collect telephone numbers). The requirements for getting a PR/TT warrant are essentially non-existent: the FBI need not show probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It must only certify to a judge - without having to prove it - that such a warrant would be "relevant" to an ongoing criminal investigation. And the judge does not even have the authority to reject the application.
The Patriot Act broadens the pen register exception in two ways:
"Nationwide" pen register warrants
Under the Patriot Act PR/TT orders issued by a judge are no longer valid only in that judge's jurisdiction, but can be made valid anywhere in the United States. This "nationwide service" further marginalizes the role of the judiciary, because a judge cannot meaningfully monitor the extent to which his or her order is being used. In addition, this provision authorizes the equivalent of a blank warrant: the court issues the order, and the law enforcement agent fills in the places to be searched. That is a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment's explicit requirement that warrants be written "particularly describing the place to be searched."
Pen register searches applied to the Internet
The Patriot Act applies the distinction between transactional and content-oriented wiretaps to the Internet. The problem is that it takes the weak standards for access to transactional data and applies them to communications that are far more than addresses. On an e-mail message, for example, law enforcement has interpreted the "header" of a message to be transactional information accessible with a PR/TT warrant. But in addition to routing information, e-mail headers include the subject line, which is part of the substance of a communication - on a letter, for example, it would clearly be inside the envelope.
The government also argues that the transactional data for Web surfing is a list of the URLs or Web site addresses that a person visits. For example, it might record the fact that they visited "www.aclu.org" at 1:15 in the afternoon, and then skipped over to "www.fbi.gov" at 1:30. This claim that URLs are just addressing data breaks down in two different ways:
Similarly, if I fill out an online form - to purchase goods or register my preferences, for example - those products and preferences will often be identified in the resulting URL.