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Support Legislation to Fix The Patriot Act

Finally, the pendulum may be swinging back to the center. But it needs a push from you. Two key pieces of legislation are pending in the U.S. Senate to fix parts of the USA PATRIOT Act -- urge your Senators to support these bills! Tell your Senators that they should cosponsor the Murkowski bill, S.1552, and the SAFE Act, S.1709. Both of these bipartisan bills place reasonable limitations on some of the most far-reaching surveillance powers added by the PATRIOT Act, and make sure that the FBI isn't left to its own devices but is subject to judicial and congressional oversight.


Just six weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress adopted the USA PATRIOT Act. Enacted with the best intentions and in response to a serious threat, the PATRIOT Act passed under intense time pressure and without serious debate.

Certainly, our government needs tools to prevent terrorism. And to the extent laws unduly tied the hands of those who protect us, those laws needed to be amended. But as so often happens in time of crisis, the pendulum swung too far. The PATRIOT Act didn't just encourage information sharing so intelligence agencies could "connect the dots" to prevent the next attack. The Act gave the Executive Branch broad discretionary powers that are not needed in the fight against terrorism and serve only to infringe on Americans' fundamental liberties.

Some of the biggest problems with the PATRIOT Act include:

  • no accountability for the FBI
  • sneak & peek searches of people's homes and offices
  • easy FBI access to sensitive business records
  • the designation of political protesters as "terrorists"
  • surveillance of computer "trespassers" without a court order
  • secret investigations with no public information about how they are being conducted
  • monitoring of email and web surfing with limited judicial involvement
  • expansive "roving" wiretap authority
  • the FBI's ability to do an end-run around standard criminal procedures


Here are just some of the biggest problems with the PATRIOT Act -- and a roadmap for restoring the balance.

 The ProblemRestoring the Balance

No Accountability


The PATRIOT Act weakened key oversight and accountability checks on the powers of the Executive Branch, reducing judges to mere "rubber stamps" and leaving many decisions about investigative techniques to the discretion of FBI agents.

Although the FBI should have the power it needs to investigate terrorism, the courts and Congress should have the authority to ensure that the FBI does not overreach.

Sneak & Peek Searches


The PATRIOT Act broadened the government's power to search an individual's home without telling her until weeks or months later, and to do so in any criminal case.

Secret searches should be allowed only in special circumstances, such as if someone's life is at stake or evidence will be destroyed. Otherwise, FBI agents should have to knock on a person's door and announce that they have a search warrant, as intended by the Fourth Amendment.

Access to Sensitive Business Records


The PATRIOT Act gave the FBI nearly unlimited power to obtain any business records, including sensitive files like medical, library and bookstore records, with a secret court order issued with no factual showing of need.

The FBI should only be able to obtain files about people suspected of being terrorists or spies. It should not be able to obtain entire databases containing information about innocent people.

Designation of Protesters as "Terrorists"


The PATRIOT Act contains a definition of "domestic terrorism" so broad that someone committing a misdemeanor could end up being dubbed a terrorist, thereby facing asset forfeiture and other serious consequences.

Only the most serious crimes should be considered terrorism.

Monitoring Computer "Trespassers" Without a Court Order


The PATRIOT Act allows ISPs, universities and network administrators to authorize government surveillance of anyone they deem a "computer trespasser" without a court order, and with no notice to the person being monitored.

Surveillance of computer users should occur with proper judicial review, not secretly with no judicial involvement.

Secret Investigations


The FBI's domestic intelligence investigations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a statute that was vastly expanded by the PATRIOT Act, occur in total secrecy, with almost no information released to the public.

The FBI should do more public reporting, on a statistical basis, about the use of secret FISA investigative techniques so the public knows how much information is gathered about U.S persons and using what methods.

Monitoring of Email and Web Surfing


The PATRIOT Act extended to the Internet the already broad authority to monitor transactional (non-content) information about communications with very little justification. A record of every call you make and every email you receive offers a full picture of your life, even without the contents.

Approval to monitor who is calling whom should be granted only when a judge finds there is reason to believe that a crime is being committed. And in the Internet context, there should be a bright-line distinction between monitoring transactional data and intercepting content.

Expansive "Roving" Wiretap Authority


The PATRIOT Act permitted the FBI to use "roving" wiretaps in intelligence investigations, but it did not include safeguards long used in criminal investigations to avoid recording the conversations of innocent people.

The FBI should be granted wiretap orders only where it specifies either the name of the target or the telephone or computer to be tapped. And in carrying out a roving tap, an FBI agent should have to verify that the person named in the order is about to use a particular phone before the tap is turned on.

End-Run Around Standard Criminal Procedures


The PATRIOT Act authorized the FBI to use special intelligence investigative techniques under FISA, which have lower standards than regular criminal procedures, even where the primary purpose of the investigation is to obtain information for a criminal trial. This essentially permits the FBI to bypass criminal standards like probable cause.

The special intelligence standards should be used only where intelligence gathering is the primary purpose for the investigation.

More Information

For more background, see

Legislative efforts to fix the PATRIOT Act:


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