How the Patriot Act Works

A Brief History of the Patriot Act

President Bush speaks about the Patriot Act in 2004.
President Bush speaks about the Patriot Act in 2004.
Photo courtesy of The White House

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, spurred a nationwide desire for tighter security and increased abilities for law-enforcement agencies to track and stop terrorists. The Patriot Act was drafted in response and introduced to Congress by Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh was the primary author of the act, following his review of Department of Justice practices and procedures in the wake of the September 11 attacks [Source:].

Separate versions of the law went before the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate version was passed on October 11, 2001, but the House version was altered several times, then redrafted and reconciled with the Senate version before being approved by the House. The Senate approved this revised consolidated version and the full bill was signed into law by President Bush on October 26, 2001.

The original act has a sunset clause which would have caused many of the law’s provisions to expire in 2005. By then, opposition to the act had grown and Democrats used a filibuster to delay reauthorization. The sunset clause was extended for several months, but increased Democratic power in Congress forced a compromise, and the act was reauthorized in early 2006 with a series of “civil liberties safeguards” in place [Source: CNN]. Most of the act’s provisions were made permanent, but many were changed and three of them were not made permanent. Libraries will no longer be subject to National Security Letters (unless that library also serves as an Internet Service Provider). Provisions allowing roving wiretaps and FBI seizure of business records are set to expire in four years [Source: The Washington Post].

The gag order on NSLs and other subpoenas was extended to one year, but the recipient is allowed to challenge the order after that time has passed. Targets of NSLs are allowed to keep the identity of their attorney from government officials. Other changes limit the length of time the FBI can hold records and force government officials to provide more thorough explanation of their reasons for requesting search warrants, surveillance or subpoenas [Source: NPR].

A bill known internally as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, but often referred to as Patriot Act II, was drafted by the Department of Justice but never submitted to Congress. A leaked copy of the draft showed that this bill featured harsh restrictions on civil liberties and vastly expanded government powers.