Patriot Act Primer

Compiled by
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; 2:51 PM

The USA PATRIOT Act, approved overwhelmingly by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, greatly expanded the government's power to monitor, search, detain or deport suspects in terrorism-related investigations.

Under section 224, several of the surveillance portions of the Act were originally due to expire on December 31, 2005. The date was later extended to February 3, 2006, and again to March 10.

It was renewed on March 2, 2006 with a vote of 89--10 in the Senate and on March 7 280--138 in the House. The renewal was signed into law by President George W Bush on March 9, 2006.

Bush accepted some changes in the law. For example, one change involves National Security Letters; libraries functioning in their "traditional capacity" would no longer be subject to such letters. The reauthorization would make permanent all but two of the Patriot Act's provisions. The Senate, in which four Republicans joined most Democrats in pushing for greater safeguards, insisted on four-year sunsets of the FBI's authority to conduct "roving wiretaps" of targets with multiple phones or e-mail devices, and of the government's powers to seize business records with the FISA court's approval.

The original (2001) legislation expanded the scope of National Security Letters, a type of administrative subpoena created in the 1970s which enabled the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. Changes under the Patriot Act allow the FBI to use the letters to scrutinize U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

Businesses that receive the letters are required to turn over electronic records about finances, telephone calls, e-mail and other personal information. The letters may be issued independently by FBI field offices and are not subject to judicial review unless a case comes to court.

Key documents and links:

  • Graphic: National Security Letter
  • Amended USA PATRIOT Act text (2006)
  • Text of the USA PATRIOT Act (2001)
  • Justice Department USA PATRIOT Act Web site 
  • DOJ Sunset Reports (PDF)
  • Declaration of David Szady, Aug. 31, 2005 (PDF) 
  • George Christian, ACLU v. Justice Department, Aug. 31, 2005 (PDF) 
  • American Civil Liberties Union National Security Letters Web site
  • American Library Association USA PATRIOT Act Web site 
  • Freedom of Information documents on the USA PATRIOT Act (Electronic Privacy Information Center) 
  • "USA PATRIOT Act: Background and Comparison of House- and Senate-approved Reauthorization and Related Legislative Action" (Congressional Research Service, Aug. 9, 2005)
  • "Administrative Subpoenas and National Security Letters in Criminal and Intelligence Investigations: A Sketch" (Congressional Research Service, April 15, 2005)
  • For further reading:

    "Bush Signs New Version of Patriot Act" (The Post, March 9, 2006)

    "Congress Votes to Renew Patriot Act, With Changes" (The Post, March 8, 2006)

    "Patriot Act Compromise Clears Way for Senate Vote" (The Post, Feb. 10, 2006)

    "Bush Assails Democrats Over Patriot Act" (The Post, Jan. 4, 2006)

    "Court Vacates an FBI Gag Order" (The Post, Sept. 10, 2005)

    "Library Challenges FBI Request" (The Post, Aug. 26, 2005)

    Key Part of Patriot Act Ruled Unconstitutional (The Post, Sept. 30, 2004)

    "U.S. Uses Secret Evidence In Secrecy Fight With ACLU" (The Post, Aug. 20, 2004)

    "ACLU Was Forced To Revise Release On Patriot Act Suit" (The Post, May 13, 2004)

    "Patriot Act Suppresses News Of Challenge to Patriot Act" (The Post, April 29, 2004)

    "Ashcroft: Patriot Act Provision Unused" (The Post, Sept. 18, 2003)

    "Fierce Fight Over Secrecy, Scope of Law" (The Post, Sept. 8, 2003)

    "Local Officials Rise Up to Defy The Patriot Act" (The Post, April 21, 2003)

    "U.S. Steps Up Secret Surveillance" (The Post, March 24, 2003)

    "Monitoring Puzzles Iraqis in U.S. " (The Post, Nov. 20, 2002)

    "Broad U.S. Wiretap Powers Upheld" (The Post, Nov. 19, 2002)

    "FBI Misused Secret Wiretaps, According to Memo" (The Post, Oct. 10. 2002)

    "Fighting Terror With Databases" (The Post, Feb. 16, 2002)

    "An Intelligence Giant in the Making" (The Post, Nov. 4, 2001)

    "House Bill Would Expand Federal Detention Powers" (The Post, Oct. 2, 2001)

    Six Weeks in Autumn (Washington Post Magazine, Oct. 27, 2002)

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