CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action 19:4
The Patriot Act: What Is the Proper Balance Between
National Security and Individual Rights?
Congress passed the Patriot Act shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Did this law go too far in the name of national security?
Terrorists struck America on September 11, 2001. Highjacking four planes, they flew two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York and another into the Pentagon in Washington. The fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania before it reached its target in Washington. Within two hours, both of the massive 110-story twin towers had collapsed. A wing of the Pentagon was severely damaged. More than 3,000 people died in the attacks. Two days later, the White House identified the culprits as members of Al Qaeda, an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group based in Afghanistan but with terrorist cells throughout the world. The hijackers had worked out of Al Qaeda terrorist cells operating in the United States. No one knew whether more terrorist attacks were coming.
Soon after September 11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft brought before Congress a list of recommended changes in the law to combat terrorism. Some of these measures had long been opposed by members of Congress as infringing on the rights of Americans.
But September 11 had swept away all previous objections. The U.S. Senate quickly passed the USA PATRIOT ACT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). Only one senator, Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), voted against it.
The next day, the House of Representatives passed the bill 357-66. The final bill was 342 pages long and changed more than 15 existing laws. Most of the Justice Department's recommendations were incorporated into it, but several provisions will expire in 2005.
On October 26, President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. He praised the "new tools to fight the present danger . . . a threat like no other our Nation has ever faced." He also asserted that the Patriot Act "upholds and respects the civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution."
The Patriot Act defines "domestic terrorism" as activities within the United States that . . . involve acts dangerous to human life that. . . appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. . . .
The Patriot Act and Privacy
Some of the most controversial parts of the Patriot Act surround issues of privacy and government surveillance. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures . . . ." It requires law-enforcement officers to obtain warrants before making most searches. To get a warrant,...