Patriot Act 10 Years Old–Success or Civil-Liberties Violation?


The USA Patriot Act is 10 years old today, passed overwhelmingly by Congress weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, NPR reports. It’s designed to give the FBI more power to collect information in cases that involve national security. In the last decade, civil liberties groups have raised concerns about whether the Patriot Act goes too far by scooping up too much data and violating people’s rights to privacy. The American Civil Liberties union also is bothered by another part of the law, the sneak and peek provision. It lets FBI agents search a person’s home or business with a judge’s blessing, but without telling the person they’re doing it.

“We’re now finding from public reports that less than 1 percent of these sneak and peek searches are happening for terrorism investigations,” says the ACLU’s Michelle Richardson. “They’re instead being used primarily in drug cases, in immigration cases, and some fraud.” Richardson says the Justice Department doesn’t usually point to specific terrorism cases it built thanks to the Patriot Act, raising questions about whether the powerful law really works. “I think a number of provisions have been very useful,” says Pat Rowan, who led the Justice Department’s national security unit during the Bush administration. “But it’s not so much that they can be isolated and pointed to and said, ‘oh well this particular provision caused the government to discover a plot it otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.'” Viet Dinh, the former Justice Department lawyer who wrote the Patriot Act, tells NPR that despite all the criticism from civil liberties groups, most people couldn’t tell you what’s in the law. “There’s no question that the USA Patriot Act has become a brand if you will, a symbol of all the counter-terrorism activities after 9-11,” he says.

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