Did the Patriot Act Change US Attitudes on Surveillance?
In the emotional wake of 9/11, a shocked and grieving nation demanded answers and justice. Lawmakers pledged to provide both with the Patriot Act.
Fifteen years later, the law dramatically expanded the government’s ability to gather surveillance, broadened the definition of terrorism and sought to strengthen border security. It led to roving wiretaps and the much-criticized collection and storage of U.S. citizens’ phone and internet metadata while requiring communications companies to hand over that data.
The law, and subsequent revelations about government surveillance of Americans, also helped push a GOP-dominated Congress to move to narrow the scope. The law also ultimately helped force into the public sphere a debate over the conflict between the government’s desire to protect its citizens and its citizens’ civil liberties.
“The Patriot Act went far beyond technological updating and I think it was passed in the heat of the moment and went too far,” said Peter Swire, a professor of law and ethics at the Georgia Institute of Technology who served as part of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. The review group was formed after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the government’s domestic surveillance programs.
“In many ways, we’ve been trying to correct its excesses ever since,” Swire said.
It was less than a month after the deadly attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation was in mourning.
So too were lawmakers who worked to craft legislation they hoped would help prevent anything like it from ever happening again on U.S. soil.
Nathan Sales was fresh off a judicial clerkship and working at the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice when he found himself part of the effort to help draft the USA PATRIOT Act, or the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. The task was a daunting one: Promote information sharing between law enforcement and the intelligence community in an effort to ward off future attacks.
“The laws were so that it was harder to investigate terrorists than Tony Soprano,” Sales told NBC News. “The right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing. Cops and spies, everyone needs to be talking.”
Sales, who is now a professor at Syracuse University School of Law, said the law did just that as well as offered the intelligence community some of the same intelligence gathering tools used by law enforcement, such as wiretapping.
But while Sales, his co-authors and the measure’s sponsors lauded the legislation, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, was troubled.
“My goal has always been to combat terrorism and keep Americans safe while upholding the Constitution,” Feingold told NBC News in a statement. “Instead of prioritizing global terror threats, I knew that the PATRIOT Act was hastily written to infringe upon the privacy and civil liberties of the very citizens it should protect. The facts have borne that out over the years.”