Debate Forum 2/23/11

Congress agrees to 90-day extension of the Patriot Act

The USA PATRIOT Act is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. Fortunately, everyone knows it today as simply the Patriot Act. It was signed into law with little debate or opposition only 43 days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks, both political parties supported sweeping policy changes to our intelligence capabilities in order to help fight the war on terror.
At the time Americans felt that we were at risk for future attacks by al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalists. Our primary concern was the need to feel safe from such random acts of violence. As a result, Americans were willing to forgo some measure of privacy and freedom in exchange for strengthening their national security. In the years that followed, however, some Americans have begun to question whether the Patriot Act provided too much government interference with too few checks and balances.
One of the lessons of 9/11 was that the different agencies in the U.S. government whose job it was to protect us from acts of terrorism were unable to effectively communicate with one another. The passage of the Patriot Act streamlined communications between varying agencies that can now work together to investigate terrorist activities. The act also makes it easier and less cumbersome for the use of surveillance by the government.
Early critics of the Patriot Act warned that it was overly reaching into the privacy of not only foreign terrorist suspects, but of American citizens as well.  The Patriot Act provides sweeping power to government agencies to monitor the personal habits of not only those who have been identified as suspected terrorists, but anyone residing in the U.S. as well as U.S. citizens residing abroad.
Many of the Patriot Act’s provisions, particularly in the area of surveillance, were drafted as sunset provisions. Sunset provisions are sections of law that automatically expire after a certain period of time unless extended through additional legislation. These provisions first expired in 2005 and were approved for extension by the Congress at that time. In fact, the law has been extended by both Republican and Democrat controlled Congresses. The current Patriot Act was set to expire on expire on February 28.
Here are the provisions set to expire:
The “roving wiretap” provision allows the FBI to obtain wiretaps from a secret intelligence court, known as the FISA court (for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), without identifying the target or what method of communication is to be tapped.
The “lone wolf” measure allows FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist. The government has said it has never invoked that provision, but the Obama administration said it wanted to retain the authority to do so.
The “business records” provision allows FISA court warrants for any type of record, from banking to library to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation.
After initially falling short on the first attempt to extend the Patriot Act, the law has recently passed the House and the Senate. The Senate version, which the House later accepted, extended it for only 90 days. It will be revisited in May. Critics of the law believe that it has eroded our civil liberties and privacy and is too high of a price to pay for our security. Supporters of the law believe the law has kept the country safer since 9/11 and that critics of the law exaggerate its risks.

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