How the Patriot Act Works

Is the Patriot Act a Success or a Failure?
President George W. Bush and the Department of Homeland Security discuss the war on terror.
President George W. Bush and the Department of Homeland Security discuss the war on terror.
Photo courtesy of The White House

The Patriot Act works on the theory that in the face of terrorist threats, Americans must balance freedom with security. The balancing act only works if the measures taken to increase security actually accomplish that goal. By one very significant measure, it could be argued that the Patriot Act has worked -- there has not been a successful terrorist attack on U.S. territory since the act was signed into law (the Anthrax scare that followed in the months after September 11 was never determined to be a terrorist attack). Of course, that could also be attributed to increased airport security, heightened awareness on the part of all Americans or the diversion of terrorist resources to conflicts in the Middle East.

The Department of Justice lists many general ways in which the act has helped the country fight terrorism, and one conservative analyst claims that 15 terrorist plots have been disrupted by agents using powers granted by the act [Source:]. The Department of Justice document specifically cites the use of roving wiretaps, expanded surveillance authorization, delayed-notification searches and interagency information sharing as crucial to the anti-terrorist mission.

Opposing the Patriot Act

In some cases, critics of the Patriot Act have taken their opposition to court or written it into law. An unnamed plaintiff sued Attorney General John Ashcroft with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union over a National Security Letter. A federal judge ruled that the recipient of an NSL has the right to contest it; the ruling automatically applied to all NSLs, deeming them an unconstitutional restriction on free speech [Source: ACLU]. In a separate case, a judge ruled that a clause of the Patriot Act making it a crime to provide aid to a terrorist group in the form of expert advice was unconstitutional. The judge believed the law was needlessly restrictive of speech and illegally vague by not defining what would constitute expert advice [Source: ACLU]. By 2004, almost 300 municipalities across the United States had passed local legislation formally disagreeing with the Patriot Act or urging Congress to modify or repeal it. One town, Arcata, Calif., passed a law making it a criminal offense to comply with those sections of the Patriot Act the town considers unconstitutional [Source: The Boston Globe and The Washington Post].

For more information on the Patriot Act and related topics, check out the links on the following page.

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