Debunking the Patriot Act as It Turns 15

Debunking the Patriot Act as It Turns 15
Oct 26 2016

The Patriot Act turns 15 today, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

Since President George W. Bush signed this bill into law on October 26, 2001, the Patriot Act has been ardently defended by its supporters in the intelligence community and harshly criticized by members of Congress, the tech industry, and privacy advocates like us. Despite the debates that have unfolded over the last 15 years, including last year’s reforms through the USA FREEDOM Act, there’s still a lot to learn about this controversial law.

Introduced in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Patriot Act opened up new justifications and methods for U.S. surveillance. In recent years, the debate around the law has focused on the sweeping phone records surveillance exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, but there are many aspects to the statute and how it came to be that are unfamiliar to many.

In honor of the law’s 15th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not know about the Patriot Act.

• Congress did not give the Patriot Act the time or debate it deserved – Only 45 days passed between the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the day Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. “No one has really had an opportunity to look at the bill to see what is in it,” Rep. Bobby Scott said at the time. The 363-page bill was considered on the House floor the same day it was introduced, leapfrogging over deliberation in the committees with jurisdiction. It passed the Senate the next day and was signed into law the following day. That expedited timeline gave members of Congress—fearful of looking un-American in the wake of national tragedy—little time to read, understand, and debate what they were voting on.

• The Patriot Act isn’t just about fighting terrorism – While it was discussed largely in the context of fighting terrorism, some of the tools that came out of the law are almost exclusively used in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. For instance, the so-called sneak-and-peek search warrants standardized in the law are used overwhelmingly in domestic drug investigations. Those Delayed Notice warrants allow law enforcement to secretly enter and search private premises.

• The U.S. government collected Americans’ phone records in bulk long before using the Patriot Act for justification – The NSA’s sweeping phone record collection surveillance program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act was hardly the first time the U.S. collected American phone records. For decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration tracked Americans’ international phone calls under a wholly unrelated provision of law. Even the NSA’s phone record program existed for years before the Bush administration first sought approval in 2006 from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to use Section 215 to justify that program.

• Surveillance under the Patriot Act goes far beyond your phone company – Section 215 dramatically expanded the “business records” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Although it was most notoriously used for the NSA’s call record program and was reformed by the USA FREEDOM Act, despite those reforms, the provision still allows the FBI to obtain records from any type of business, including your car rental company, your school, or your employer.

• You don’t need to be suspected of committing a crime to be spied on under some provisions of the Patriot Act – Under some provisions of the Patriot Act, all the FBI needs to show is that the surveillance is “relevant” to its investigation—a term we know the FBI has interpreted extremely broadly in the past. Although USA FREEDOM Act’s changes to the law may rein in future abuses of the statute, we still don’t have the full story about how the law has been used previously.



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