What Is the USA PATRIOT Act?
The Patriot Act, or USA PATRIOT Act, was passed shortly after the terrorist attacks in the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001, and gave law enforcement agencies broader powers to investigate, indict, and bring terrorists to justice. It also led to increased penalties for committing and supporting terrorist crimes.
An acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” the USA PATRIOT Act lowered the threshold for law enforcement to obtain intelligence and information against suspected spies, terrorists, and other enemies of the United States.
- The Patriot Act is a U.S. law granting law enforcement more powers to prevent terrorist attacks.
- The act, USA PATRIOT, is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
- The law requires the financial industry to report suspicious customer behaviors to prevent terrorism-related money laundering.
- Proponents of the Patriot Act claim it provides necessary tools to law enforcement in combating terrorism.
- Critics of the Patriot Act say the law infringes on constitutional rights of privacy.
History of the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act, the common reference for the USA PATRIOT Act, was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, following the September 11th terrorist attacks against the United States.
It enhanced previous legislation from April 1996, entitled the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” enacted during the Clinton administration following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The Patriot Act aimed to increase homeland security and expanded tools available to law enforcement and federal agents such as:
• Surveillance, wiretapping, and roving wiretaps to track and investigate terror-related crimes.
• Obtaining bank records and business financial records to prevent money laundering for terrorism financing.
• Improved intelligence sharing between government agencies.
• Tougher penalties for convicted terrorists and those who aid them.
• Allowing for delayed search warrants.
• Preventing aliens involved in terrorist activities to enter the United States.
Implications of the Patriot Act
Police officers, FBI agents, federal prosecutors, and intelligence officials are better able to share information and evidence on individuals and plots, thus enhancing their protection of communities.
Federal agents may use court orders to obtain business records from hardware stores or chemical plants to determine who may be buying materials to construct bombs. Bank records can be obtained to determine if an individual or entity is sending money to terrorists or suspect organizations.
National Security Letters
The Patriot Act widened the use of National Security Letters issued by the FBI which are issued without a judge's approval to obtain phone records, bank records, or computer records.
The Patriot Act impacts financial professionals and financial institutions with its Title III provision, entitled "International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001,” targeting parties suspected of terrorism, terrorist financing, and money laundering.
Banks must also investigate accounts owned by political figures suspected of past corruption and there are greater restrictions on the use of internal bank concentration accounts that fail to effectively maintain audit trails.
The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA), The Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act, requires banks to record cash purchases of instruments that have daily aggregate values of $10,000 or more, an amount that triggers suspicion of tax evasion and other questionable practices and the Patriot Act makes concealing more than $10,000 on anyone’s physical person an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Act expanded the definition of money laundering to include computer crimes, the bribing of elected officials, and the fraudulent handling of public funds. Money laundering now encompasses the exportation or importation of controlled munitions not approved by the U.S. Attorney General.
Advantages of the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act and its merit have been debated since its inception in 2001 and advocates claim the Act has made anti-terrorism efforts more streamlined, efficient, and effective.
According to the Department of Justice, the Patriot Act has incapacitated at least 3,000 operatives worldwide, broken terrorist cells in Buffalo, Detroit, Seattle, Portland, and Northern Virginia, designated 40 terrorist organizations, and frozen at least $136 million in suspected assets around the world.
Roving wiretaps allow tracking of international terrorists trained to avoid surveillance. The option to delay notifying terrorist suspects of a search warrant gives law enforcement time to identify the criminal’s associates and eliminate immediate community threats.
The Patriot Act facilitates information sharing and cooperation among government agencies so that they can better "connect the dots." With more unity through multiple communication channels, investigating officers can act quickly before a suspected attack is completed.
Increased wiretapping under the Patriot Act lets investigators listen to conversations that could potentially be threatening to the national security of a country, but groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned the risk of abuse of wiretapping American citizens.
Disadvantages of the Patriot Act
Civil rights groups have claimed the Patriot Act violates Constitutional rights and allows the government to spy on individuals without due process and search their homes without consent.
The Act enhanced the use of national security letters, NSLs, an administrative subpoena issued by the United States government to gather information, like telephone records, or bank records, for national security purposes. However, the Patriot Act does not require information obtained by an NSL to be destroyed, even for an innocent citizen.
Critics argue that basic rights under the Fourth Amendment have been compromised by the Patriot Act as delayed warrants allow officials to enter homes or offices and conduct searches while the occupant is away.
The business, finance, and investment communities are affected by heightened documentation requirements and due diligence responsibilities for account holders who conduct international business.
Suspected terrorists have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other sites with delayed due process. In addition, following 9/11, many Muslims, South Asians, and Arabs, and their communities, were unfairly targeted and racially profiled due to the passage of the Patriot Act.
What Is the USA Freedom Act?
To help prevent the Patriot Act from infringing on the civil liberties of American citizens, President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act into law on June 2, 2015, ending the bulk collection of phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It also required transparency between the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the American people but allows the government to track suspected foreign terrorists for 72 hours after they enter the United States.
What Is a Sneak and Peek Search?
The Patriot Act allows federal law enforcement to delay giving notice and conduct secret searches of homes or offices as deemed necessary while the occupant of a home or business is away.
What Is the USA Patriot and Terrorism Reauthorization Act?
Many of the Patriot Act’s requirements were set to expire in 2005 and despite continued civil liberties and privacy concerns, President George W. Bush signed the USA Patriot and Terrorism Reauthorization Act on March 9, 2006, continuing the use of the provisions already in place.
The Bottom Line
The USA PATRIOT Act, commonly known as the Patriot Act, was signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks. It enhanced the abilities of law enforcement regarding surveillance, money laundering for terrorism financing, and improved intelligence sharing between government agencies.