How the Patriot Act Works

Primary Criticisms of the Act

President George W. Bush signs the Patriot Act into law.
President George W. Bush signs the Patriot Act into law.
Photo courtesy of The White House

The Patriot Act has come under fire for a number of reasons. It was passed very quickly (just over a month after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks), and Congress spent very little time reading and debating it. By some accounts, less than 48 hours passed between the presentation of the bill’s final wording and the law passing in both houses of Congress, leading to some doubt whether many members of Congress actually read the lengthy and complex bill. However, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was the only senator to vote against the act, while several members of the House of Representatives joined his dissent or abstained from voting. Critics contend that such a crucial and sweeping piece of legislation deserved more thorough deliberation.

There are fears that the Patriot Act reduces or removes many of the civil liberties enjoyed in the United States and guaranteed by the Constitution. The right to privacy (not specifically mentioned in the Constitution but supported by numerous Supreme Court decisions) and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures are the most notable infringements due to the expansion of the government’s ability to conduct wiretaps, obtain NSLs and perform searches without notification. The detainment of material witnesses and terrorist suspects without access to lawyers, hearings or any formal charges are seen as erosions of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, rights of due process and trial by jury, respectively.

Critics also charge that the Patriot Act unfairly expands the powers of the executive branch and strips away many crucial checks and balances. The lack of judicial review, or secretive reviews subject to strict gag orders are the key elements of this criticism. There are also fears that the law will be inappropriately used against non-terrorist criminals. In fact, it’s been used to remove homeless people from train stations, to pursue drug rings and to collect financial data on random visitors to Las Vegas [Soure:, New York Times and Business Week].

The results of an internal FBI audit were released in 2007, revealing that the agency had misused National Security Letters in more than 1,000 instances since 2002. It’s likely that this number represents only a fraction of actual number of NSL abuses [Source: The Washington Post].