Brief background and summary of the Act
The USA Patriot Act was a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was signed into law in October of 2001. In May, 2011, the Patriot Sunsets Extension Act was made law. The Act's offical name is The Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.
The Act is complex and is over 300 pages long. It makes several changes to existing laws including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and the Money Laudering Control Act of 1986 among others. The codified version of the Act appears in Titles 8, 12, 15, 18, 20, 31, 42, 47, 49 and 50 of the U.S.C.
As described by the Congressional Digest , the "Act gives Federal officials greater authority to track and intercept communications, both for law enforcement and foreign intelligence-gathering purposes." It also "creates new crimes, new penalties, and new procedural efficiencies for use against domestic and international terrorists."
Perhaps the most controverial part of the Act deals with foreign intelligence investigations. It permits increases in the number of judges on the FISA court ( the so called "secret court") from 7 to 11. This court was created under a section of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It sanctions court-ordered access to "any tangible item" rather than only business records. Section 215 of the Act authorizes the Federal government to order businesses to turn over "the production of any tangible things", provided the FISA Court approves and deems the data relevant to a national security investigation. The CRS summed up section 215: "it both enlarged the scope of materials that may be sought and lowered the standard for a court (i.e.FISA court) to issue an order compelling their production." Also, most importantly to some, section 215 removed the limitation that it had to be a suspected spy or terrorist whose records were being sought. At this point, anyone's records can be sought. The only limitation being that the secret warrant has to be relevant to a national security investigation. Some groups and individuals are of the opinion that Section 215 violates the Fouth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the probable cause standard is eliminated and that the FISA Court lacks public oversight and has granted too many Government requests for records. In addition, some say that no warrent is required at all. Not everyone is of this opinion. The legal requirements for these types of investigations remain clouded and controversial as demonstrated by recent events in the news. Websites and books abound arguing for and against the Patriot Act.
On June 2, 2015, sections of the Patriot Act were scaled back and restrictions were set in place. Storage of bulk collection of phone records now shifts to the telepone companies. The federal government must also petition the FISA court for permission to search those records. The FISA Court will be required to declassify some of its decisions and in certain cases, outside persons will be allowed to argue for privacy rights before the Court. While this new act- The USA Freedom Act-restricts the Patriot Act, many argue that the government's surveillance powers remain too broad. Time will tell if Congress votes ( and the President signs) additional restrictions to the Patriot Act.