The US Patriot Act is a statute that was enacted by the United States government in 2001 in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the US by the Al Qaeda. The 107th United States Congress which enacted the Act acknowledged that terrorism had become a great security threat for the American and other nations in the world. Efforts to deal with terrorism demanded that a legislation that would facilitate efforts to fight terrorism be put into place.
The acronym USA PATRIOT Act stands for Uniting and strengthening America by providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act . The Act provides the law enforcement agencies with the authority to search and gather information about terror suspects. In addition, the Patriot Act provides authority to the Secretary of the Treasury to regulate financial transactions especially those that involve foreign entities, as well as individuals.
Any suspect of terrorism can be detained or deported by the immigration or law enforcement authorities under the Act. Apart from terrorism that involves foreigners; domestic terrorism is also included in the Patriotic Act. At the time when the Act was passed, the Democratic and Republican Party members and the two Houses of Congress supported it. Although the Act aimed at fighting terrorism, the implementation of the Act has led to controversy in the US. The Act has since its enactment being criticized for undermining civil liberty of the citizens.
One of the sections of the Patriotic Act that has been controversial is section 218. According to this section, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was be amended to allow the Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI) to conduct physical search or wiretap secretly in efforts to obtain evidence of crime. The Act allows this without making it mandatory for the FBI to prove probable cause of crime. Discussion Controversy on US Patriot Act Section 218 Section 218 of the Patriotic Act is referred to as the Foreign Intelligence Information.
Before the Act was amended, the term “purpose” was used but its amendment led to its replacement with the term “significant purpose”. This has been the source of controversy about this section since it allows the FBI to either conduct a secret search or to record telephone conversations without a probable cause of crime (Brasch, p 24). Although the FBI may do this for the purpose of investigating criminal activity, lack of probable cause of crime makes the section leave room for unconstitutional activity.
Opponents of the Act argue that the searches and wiretaps by the FBI which are allowed by section 218 without ensuring there is probable cause of crime may lead to unconstitutional activities directed towards the people. Before the Act was amended, all criminal investigators were only granted permission to wiretap or to search if they showed that the primary reason for doing so was gather foreign intelligence (Department of Justice,np). The Patriotic Act section 218 is considered to lower this requirement by replacing the term “purpose” with the phrase “significant purpose”.
Criminal investigators are given authority to search or wiretap even though the investigation can lead to criminal charges. This is likely to undermine the civil liberty of the people. Critics of section 218 argue that criminal investigators may use the authority granted to them by the section to easily launch searches and foreign intelligence wiretaps that can lead to abuse of suspects. Abuse of civil liberty during the probes may occur because the section allows the probes to be conducted in secret which makes cases of abuse towards suspects by criminal investigators hard to detect.
Another issue about section 218 that has been controversial is the fact that American citizens who may not necessarily be suspects of terrorism can be subjected to searches and electronic surveillance. FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) does not require a probable cause to allow searches and this increases the probability that American citizens who are not involved in terrorism may have their communication monitored and homes searched by investigators even in absence of a probable cause.
It is such fears that have made section 218 attract special attention and debate among the Americans. The possibility of FISA surveillance increasing rapidly in future is considered to have serious implications on the civil liberty of the citizens. For instance, since the enactment of the Patriotic Act, there have been an increase in the number of surveillance cases on the public. This is attributed to the shift of law towards a surveillance statute that promotes secret investigations. Initially, the statute was more open and based on the probable cause of crime.
This change in law can make investigators justify any communication monitoring and searches even when it was not important to do so. Opponents to the section 218 of the Patriot Act hold the opinion that the Congress and the White House gave too much power to the National Security Agency due to the panic that was witnessed before the Patriot Act was passed (Philip, p 178). In October 2001, a biological weapon attack on the US occurred when letters that contained anthrax were sent through American mail system to two senators.
This occurrence is associated with the quick support of the Act by the Congress and the White House. In addition, the labeling of the Patriotic Act as an assault on the Bill of rights is implies that section 218 may undermine the right to liberty of both the American and non-American citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been a critic of section 218 of the Patriotic Act due to its provisions (American Civil Liberties Union, np). The Union argues that although the section can be beneficial in investigating terror suspects, investigators may target innocent people.
This means that monitoring and searches can be done on people who may not be suspects of terrorism. Apart from the US citizens, non-Americans or foreigners can be investigated as long as there is “significant purpose” to do so. This may expose foreigners to victimization. Wiretaps and searches by investigators on foreigners are allowed by section 218 if there is “reasonable suspicion” for the investigators to carry out the search. The issue of the rights of non-citizens in the US has been a very sensitive matter.
The US Constitution protects the rights of all people including foreigners. If section 218 was to be used by law enforcement and intelligence officials to investigate foreigners, foreigners may have their privacy invaded and their liberty undermined (Cole and James, p 32). This is because, in case investigators want to conduct searches or to wiretaps on foreigners, all they need to do is to prove that the person being investigated is an agent of a foreign power. Section 218 promotes the coordination between the law enforcement and intelligence official’s investigations.
The gathering of information by these two sides without a probable cause can lead to the use of the information gathered in a federal prosecution. This can undermine the US constitution Fourth Amendment which offers protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Section 218 amended the 1978 foreign Intelligence surveillance Act (FISA) which made it mandatory for intelligence agencies to gather information only for intelligence purpose hence allowing investigation based on “significant purpose” allows any member of the US government security agency to spy on both the US citizens and foreigners.
Information that is gathered based on section 218 can be shared between the law enforcement authority and intelligence under the provisions of section 203 of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act section 218 is associated with religious or racial profiling which is believed to subject people to discrimination. Because the US -Muslim relations have been affected by terror activities by organizations that show Islamic extremism, the Patriot Act section 218 has increased the hostility between the US and the Muslims.
In efforts to monitor and search suspects, Muslims are perceived to be likely terrorists. Section 218 is associated to the monitoring and searches conducted on Islamic groups, a situation that is seen to be blatant discrimination of Muslim believers. This has attracted criticism by Muslim ambassadors and because foreigners or Muslim believers may be subjected to searches and monitoring by the US Intelligence and law enforcement officials, the Patriot Act has received negative perception in some parts of the world.