The Patriot Act is actually an acronym. It stands for “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” This legislation was written and passed by Congress in response to the terror attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001.
The goal of the Patriot Act was rather simple: to give Federal and law enforcement officials a greater level of authority when tracking, intercepting, or gathering communications and intelligence of suspected terrorists. It also allowed for greater communication in foreign intelligence gathering and provided the Secretary of the Treasury greater regulatory powers regarding foreign money and terrorism.
To create these additional safeguards, certain privacy considerations from US citizens were reduced or compromised. That has included the use of “secret” courts where warrants can be issued to obtain metadata from phone calls and internet activities of private citizens. Warrantless collection methods were also used in some instances.
Has the Patriot Act helped to make the US safer? Has it prevented more acts of terrorism that would have taken place if this legislation had not been crafted and signed? Here are the pros and cons of the Patriot Act to consider.
List of the Pros of the Patriot Act
1. It strengthened US measures to detect, prevent, and prosecute the financing of terrorism.
One of the key goals of the Patriot Act was to break down the administrative barriers that prevented different governmental organizations from talking with each other. It allowed law enforcement and government officials to use the same tools that they were already using to fight crime, but with a special emphasis on terrorism. Because terrorists require financing to accomplish their goals, one of the primary points of focus was placed on domestic and international banking systems.
2. It added scrutiny to foreign jurisdictions and financial institutions.
Before the Patriot Act, the US government and law enforcement paid little attention to financial transactions that took place in foreign jurisdictions. Terrorists could take advantage of this lack of oversight. By instituting this legislation, Congress brought attention to these overlooked monetary transfers. This increased the chances of catching a suspected terrorist before an attack occurred, protecting communities in the process, because the paper trail that indicated a potential act of terrorism could be discovered before a full plot had the chance to form.
3. It instituted measures within the US financial system to stop corruption.
Foreign officials had also found loopholes that would allow them to use banks and other financial institutions in the United States to fund terrorism. Money laundering occurred frequently through these legislative loopholes. One of the primary points of emphasis within the Patriot Act was to eliminate these legal loopholes that could potentially fund international terrorism while US banks profited from the encounter at home.
4. It expanded surveillance authority regarding what the government could perform.
Intelligence officials were equipped by the Patriot Act to mount coordinated campaigns against terrorist organizations through the resources that were legislatively provided. The law revised the legal restraints that were deemed to be “counterproductive.” It updated communication laws, provided a greater ability to analyze, and applied existing laws so that terrorism and terrorists could be included by definition.
5. Improved communication and better resources provide more speed.
Investigators can move with greater speed when there is a suspected threat of terrorism. The Patriot Act reduced the delays that forced officials to work at a specific pace. By eliminating those restrictions, charges could be brought faster and suspected terrorists could be taken off the streets faster. That, in return, could protect communities from the threat of terror.
List of the Cons of the Patriot Act
1. It reduced the checks and balances on government oversight.
Some of the legal restraints that were deemed to be counterproductive had been put in place to protect the rights of American citizens. In a moment of panic, Congress essentially gave law enforcement officials permission to collect intelligence on legal citizens of the United States. At the same time, judicial oversight was reduced, allowing law enforcement to take action without needing to get permission from the courts to do so in some instances.
2. It reduced public accountability.
One of the easiest ways to keep law enforcement accountable for their actions is through public oversight. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) lists 13 clear benefits of public accountability, ranging from an improvement of the quality of internal investigations to mediated solutions that can help reduce or satisfy complaints.
3. It reduced the ability of the public to challenge a government search in court.
Many of the secret search warrants that are issued by the courts through the legislation of the Patriot Act come with a gag order. That means they cannot be discussed publicly without a threat of reprisal for doing so. In 2017, law enforcement obtained several warrants for protest groups which included Facebook information. Officials even used this information, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation, to infiltrate protest planning meetings.
4. It allowed government officials to target citizens not under criminal investigation.
In 2015, the US public found out that the NSA was collecting phone data in bulk. Numerous people had their phone metadata obtained by the government and searched for potential illegal activity without their knowledge or permission. Although the act of collecting this information in bulk was eventually deemed to be illegal, that didn’t change the fact that the information had been reviewed on people who were never charged with a crime or were under a criminal investigation.
5. It allowed for unlawful imprisonment.
The United States government acknowledged that they held 99 legal citizens were held as enemy combatants after their capture in Afghanistan, not giving them the right to due process that is Constitutionally provided. One of those people, Yasser Hamdi, was detained at Guantanamo Bay, even though only non-citizens were supposed to be detained there. He was repatriated to Saudi Arabia after renouncing his US citizenship, but the precedent had been set. If you were suspected of being an enemy combatant, even without proof, there was a chance you could be indefinitely detained.
6. It polarized communities.
The duopoly of the United States political system has created conflict and polarization for more than a generation. People came together after the events of 9/11, but they came apart once again after the impact of the Patriot Act was realized. People live in fear today, which represents itself as hostility and cruelty, and that has created more separation than arguably ever before.
The pros and cons of the Patriot Act show us that as our access to data changes, we must also be willing to update our privacy laws and definitions. Staying safe is important, but the price of security shouldn’t be to bring suspicion on innocent people.