In October of 2001, approximately six weeks after the tragic attacks of September 11th, a panicked congress passed the “USA/Patriot Act”; this was a revision of the nation’s surveillance laws. The Patriot Act expanded the government’s authority to monitor its citizens. Many of the changes made by the Patriot Act were a direct result of previous law enforcement wish lists that had been repeatedly rejected by congress; many believe that during this time congress was bullied into passing the new surveillance law by the Bush Administration. The Patriot Act increases the government’s powers in four areas: Record searches; allowing government officials to have access to an individual’s activity being held by a third party (Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT, n.d). Secret Searches; expanding our government’s ability to search a private property without prior notice to the owner (Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT, n.d). Intelligence Searches; expanding a very narrow exception to our Fourth Amendment that was created for the collection of foreign intelligence information (Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT, n.d) and “Trap and Trace” Searches; this further expanding another Fourth Amendment exception for monitoring ‘addressing’ information about the origin and destination of communications. While this act has aided tremendously in the United States counter terrorist endeavors there are still flaws that should be addressed before any American can feel safe and trust their government. In order for the Patriot Act to protect the American People the way it was intended, revisions need to be made. Three revisions that I recommend are, establishing accountability for each government official, narrowing the Fourth Amendment exceptions within the Patriot Act, and creating a more concrete definition of terrorism in order to produce a clear understanding of who could be a potential terrorist.
The first major issue within the Patriot Act is the lack of accountability each government agency faces. When the Patriot Act was passed, it weakened key accountability checks on the powers held by specific government agencies. This allowed all investigative techniques to be left to discretion of the agents as individuals. This has caused many issues, including, agencies facing discrimination charges and very important details being over looked by careless agents. This could be easily corrected by ensuring each agency has the power it needs to investigate any potential threat of terrorism while allowing the courts and congress the authority to guarantee they do not overreach their jurisdiction or allow personal biases to come into play.
The second major issue(s) within the Patriot Act are the exceptions to an Americans Fourth Amendment rights. This occurs is two areas of the Act; first, in what is referred to as “Sneak and Peek Searches” and secondly in the governments nearly unlimited access to America’s sensitive records. Sneak and Peek Searches are, in essence, a section within the Act that allows government agencies to search an individual’s home without telling them until weeks or even months later; the practice can be used not only in potential terrorism cases but also during basic criminal cases. The best way to combat this would be only allowing these controversial searches during special circumstances, such as if someone’s life is at stake or valuable evidence is at risk of being destroyed. Aside from these special situations agents should be required to present a search warrant, as intended by the Fourth Amendment. The second issue within the Patriot Act’s clear violation of our Fourth Amendment Rights is the governments potential to have access to any sensitive records they choose. Any government agency can currently obtain records on an individual ranging from, business, medical, library and even bookstore records with a court order issued showing no factual need for said records. To correct this issue, we would need to create restrictions so government could only obtain the files for people suspected of being terrorists or spies. I feel this power is greatly abused when officials are able to obtain the records of innocent people.
The final, and possibly the most important, issue with the Patriot Act is the unrealistically vague definition of the word terrorism or terrorist. The Patriot Act contains a definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ that is so broad that someone committing a misdemeanor could end up being dubbed a terrorist. In a recent article I read, there was an anti-war protest group that, due to the agents using their own discretion, was labeled as a terrorist organization (The Whispering Campaign. n.d.). The case resulted in the lives of each member being potentially ruined. The only way to battle this would be only charging serious crimes with terrorism. This would ensure that minor crimes will not have a life ruining effect on individuals.
In closing, while it is clear that the Patriot Act has many flaws, these issues can easily be corrected with minor adjustments to the Act. Luckily, in November of 2015 many off these issues will be addressed and voted on in congress. By establishing accountability for each government official, narrowing the four amendments exceptions within the Patriot Act and creating a more concrete definition of terrorism we can create a safer America and a more trustworthy government.
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