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Did You Know?
The Patriot Act received such overwhelming support when it was passed in 2001, that only one senator (Russ Feingold) voted against it.
The day of September 11, 2001, was one of the deadliest in US history. Two passenger airliners hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, leading to the collapse of the towers in less than 2 hours. Two other hijacked planes crashed on the same day, with all attacks claiming around 3,000 lives in total. Clearly, something was amiss with the security establishment of the United States, as terrorists were able to strike right at the pride of the country - the Twin Towers.
World Trade Center Rescue
World Trade Center Rescue September 11, 2001
Realizing the intensity of the situation, the Federal Government moved with lightning speed and passed a law called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, in just 45 days after the attacks. However, rather than unite the country against terrorism, the Act sparked a new controversy. Let us see the pros and cons of the Patriot Act, so as to understand what the fuss is all about.
What is the Patriot Act?
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the Federal Government decided to pass a law that gave law enforcement agencies more power to fight terror. Known as the USA Patriot Act, or simply the Patriot Act, it enhanced the surveillance and investigative powers of such agencies to apprehend potential terrorists.
The most important sections of the Act are:
  • Federal agencies were allowed to share information with each other.
  • Law enforcement officials could search a suspect's home without a warrant or even informing him/her in advance.
  • It allowed suspicious immigrants to be locked up indefinitely, without access to legal support.
  • Agencies could access business documents, books, papers, and other records of suspects.
  • It allowed monitoring of personal internet activity and emails, to build up a database and identify potential suspects.
  • It allowed tapping of all communication devices used by a suspect, with just a single warrant.
  • Anyone who provided support to a terrorist would face legal action.
  • Agencies were allowed to crack down on funds channeled for terror activities.
What are its Pros?
❑ It gave law enforcement agencies more teeth to weed out terrorists. The fact that there has been no major terror attack in the United States post-9/11 is proof of its success.

❑ Information-sharing between different agencies fills the gaps that caused the 9/11 attacks. The CIA had prior suspicions about the hijackers, but they passed this information to the FBI only in August, barely a month before the attacks.

❑ The Act allows security officials to monitor suspicious activities, and apprehend potential terrorists before they have a chance to carry out their plans, which could cost thousands of lives.

❑ It allows officials to identify tech-savvy suspects, who are experts in erasing their online traces.

❑ The Patriot Act reduced the bureaucratic 'red tape' that officials often faced in counter-terror activities. An example of such hurdles is that, before this Act, officials needed multiple warrants to tap different communication devices of a single suspect, which hindered their investigation.

❑ By improved surveillance, officials can focus their attention to suspicious individuals without harassing innocent people.

❑ The improvement in surveillance brought on by this Act can be used to solve other crimes, such as drug trafficking and kidnappings, which often require a similar kind of investigation.

❑ The action taken against individuals who support terrorists, and blocking funds directed to such crimes, can destroy terror networks.

❑ An improvement in surveillance will discourage terror activities, by forcing terrorists to improvise. An example is, when Osama Bin Laden discovered that his cell phone conversations were being monitored, he began sending hand-delivered messages.

❑ While most of the sections of the Patriot Act are permanent, some are 'sunset provisions'. This means that they expire after a certain period, if not reauthorized. This helps the government in deciding whether a provision is unnecessary, or needs some change.
What are its Cons?
❑ The biggest criticism of the Patriot Act is that it infringes on the civil liberties which have been guaranteed by the Constitution itself. For example, it may lead to the surveillance of ordinary US citizens, which violates their right to privacy as given in the Bill of Rights.

❑ While the Act allows officials to take action against those who provide support to terrorists, it is feared that this rule may be used to punish anyone who associates with them.

❑ It may lead to the racial profiling of terror, and other forms of civil rights abuses. This may marginalize minorities, which, at best, may deprive security agencies of their help in fighting terror, and, at worst, it may radicalize them to become terror recruits.

❑ Critics argue that the right to search the homes of possible terror suspects may be used for minor crimes as well where it is not really needed.

❑ Critics have warned that the collection of business records of suspects, as allowed by the Act, may be used to monitor the reading records of libraries and bookstores, infringing on the privacy of citizens.

❑ The provision allowing federal agencies to block the flow of funds to terror activities has been used to choke the 'Hawala' money-transferring system, which is often used by immigrants to send money to their families back home, despite only a minor fraction of this system being used to finance terror. On the other hand, traditional banking institutions have been heavily exploited by terrorists.

❑ The surveillance allowed by this Act may be misused by government authorities to target political rivals, with an eye on elections. This is especially dangerous, considering that the language used in this Act is ambiguous in some places.

❑ The sharing of information between different agencies may result in huge databases containing information about ordinary citizens, who may not be suspects in any criminal activity.
The Patriot Act is among the most hotly-debated laws in recent history. Its ardent supporters have even gone as far as labeling all its critics 'criminals', 'crooked politicians', and 'terrorists'. On the other hand, its critics claim that the Act infringes on civil liberties that the US is famous for, which is a victory for terrorists. While it has been extended by overwhelming support in 2005, 2006, and 2011, the fate of the Act's 'sunset provisions' will be decided by June 1, 2015, after which they will expire.