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What is the Patriot Act?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 is a far-reaching piece of legislation that was designed to make it easier for the United States to detect and act on potential security threats. It is more commonly known by its acronym, the USA PATRIOT Act, and may be colloquially called the “Patriot Act.” The contents of the act were extremely controversial, especially among liberal Americans and people who are concerned about their civil liberties.

The Patriot Act was signed into law on 26 October 2001, a little over a month after the 11 September attacks. Many critics of the act have pointed out that it was not heavily debated in Congress, and that because it was hastily pushed through, some of the language is extremely vague. Originally, the act had what is known as a “sunset clause,” meaning that it would expire in four years. In 2006, most of the law was reauthorized and made permanent, after more extensive debate in the House and Senate.

Under the Patriot Act, American law enforcement personnel have far more authority than they did before. This change in authority is designed to ensure that law enforcement can act quickly and decisively to apprehend terrorists. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, many figures in government wanted to grant law enforcement more powers to observe unusual activity and act upon it. Many of the terms in the act could be perceived as detrimental to civil liberties, a major concern for some Americans.

Surveillance capabilities were greatly expanded under the act, which also increased regulation of financial transactions which are suspected to be tied to terrorist activity. It also greatly enhanced the ability of law enforcement to monitor foreign nationals in the United States, deporting them if it is deemed necessary. Domestic and international intelligence gathering were enlarged in scope, and the act also allows law enforcement to execute warrants for searches and wiretapping without notifying the object of the warrant. It also increased the scope of authority on domestic terrorism, leading to serious consequences for radical organizations like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

One of the more controversial sections of the Patriot Act was Section 215, which allows law enforcement to gather records, including a person's library checkout history or Internet purchase history. The American Library Association expressed strong opposition to this section of the act, with many librarians pledging to refuse to surrender such data on their patrons. The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed dissatisfaction with much of the language in the act, especially language which permits “sneak and peek” searches, clandestine searches executed on private property.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon300132 — On Oct 28, 2012

I think that they should pass physical, psychological, and moral tests and drafts should be a thing of the past. Sympathizers should keep irrelevant information out of there, and the politicians or others who want to fight the war should do their own fighting.

If you up the age and health standards, it will be an incredible advantage. Give equal rights to those who can perform within your peer group regardless of any physical obstacle. Bring anyone who can fight and can pass the tests.

By anon290377 — On Sep 09, 2012

Say what you will about the 18 year olds being far less experienced or nowhere near as strong as "44 year old bums" but these kids are moldable. These kids are fresh out of high school and have never worked anywhere other than McDonald's. The are easily influenced and trainable. Most of them do not have opinions on the government, the president etc. and therefore would never have a problem taking the orders from such. Honestly, who gives a crap who is stronger? If a kid can stand up and run two miles with 120 extra pounds on his back, he is in perfect shape.

By anon147238 — On Jan 28, 2011

So long as they pass reasonable fitness requirements, why not enlist all those who arne't just 18?

By anon105121 — On Aug 19, 2010

We did not have this in our country when we did not go to war so many times.

By anon65951 — On Feb 16, 2010

i agree with upping the age limit. If you meet the physical health standards, what's the problem? you're probably smarter and more experienced all around than any other 18 year old. As soon as i can, i'm getting out there and doing my part.

By anon62808 — On Jan 28, 2010

Yes, exactly my thoughts. As long there is a need for troops, there are opportunities for all. The government says "Equal Rights". But equal rights for who? The 12 year olds? Our age group should be able to join the military without having been previously enlisted!

By anon54695 — On Dec 01, 2009

if they're sending 30,000 more troops, why not upping the age limit? im 44 years old, unemployed for two years and strong. leave the little babies at home. there's probably 30,000 bums like me that would say Bring It!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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