The Patriot Act was one of the first significant pieces of legislation to pass Congress supposedly focused on surveilling terrorists. A mere 45 days after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government passed the surveillance law, stating it was in the name of national security, and yet the truth was far more unsettling.
The Patriot Act was the first of many changes that allowed the U.S. government to spy on American citizens without judicial interference. While the law initially held widespread public favor — garnered primarily out of fear from the September terrorist attacks — years later, people would realize the severity of the abuse of power afforded to the FBI and other investigative bodies.
The Allowances of the Patriot Act
The primary focus of the Patriot Act was to streamline surveillance tasks. Still, in the haste of approval, there were not enough limitations or checks and balances put in place to protect ordinary Americans. The law expanded the authority of bodies such as the FBI, allowing each to monitor phone and email communications, credit reporting records, banking information, and internet activity without judicial approval.
FBI agents issue National Security Letters to obtain personal information without oversight. These letters provide access to phone and computer records, credit history, and banking history. The Patriot Act has no provision to destroy nonessential information obtained by NSLs, meaning average citizens might have their personal information still floating around in FBI databases despite posing no threat to the country.
The Patriot Act also changed the process of searches, altering the Fourth Amendment privacy protections. Under the law, “Sneak & Peek” searches became legal, meaning federal law enforcement agencies no longer need to present a warrant before entering an American citizen’s home. Federal agents can now enter an individual’s property — even seizing property in some instances — without notifying the owner until later.
If your information was acquired through an NSL, it remains in a database forever. Over 34,000 intelligence and law enforcement agents can access your data whenever they want. While some people might argue that innocent people have nothing to hide, this stance does not address the invasion of privacy nor the program’s lack of success.
The Outcomes of the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act was passed by Congress and accepted by citizens under the guise of its anti-terrorism premise. Unfortunately, since its inception, the law has done little to prevent or capture terrorists. From 2003 to 2006, the FBI issued about 192,500 NSLs with only one terror-related conviction; that conviction did not require the Patriot Act.
Additionally, out of the more than 143,074 NSLs acquired from 2003 to 2005, only 53 resulted in criminal referrals to prosecutors, and zero were for terrorist activity. The criminal referrals included immigration, money laundering, and fraud-related offenses.
Out of the 3,970 Sneek & Peeks performed in 2010, most were related to drug offenses. Only around 1% of those searches occurred because of terror-related suspicions.
The expansion of surveillance under the Patriot Act permitted widespread abuses of power. American civilians became the targets of widespread investigations and deep-dives despite no apparent ties to terrorist activity. The law essentially because a tool for stereotyping and profiling based on ethnicity, religious preference, and several other slippery slopes. The law perverted the constitution and failed to fulfill its promises to detect and weed out terrorists.
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