On October 26, 2001, less than two months after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). This act gave the government greater ability to seek out and combat terrorist activity in the United States. The PATRIOT Act grants the Secretary of the Treasury with new regulatory powers to fight money laundering from foreign countries in U.S. banks; secures national borders against foreign nationals who are terrorists or who support terrorism; eases restrictions on interception and surveillance of correspondence and communication that may link to terrorist activity; stiffens penalties against money laundering, counterfeiting, charity fraud, and similar crimes; and creates new crimes and penalties for such acts as harboring terrorists and giving terrorists material support.

Civil liberties groups complained that the PATRIOT Act, hastily passed in a national atmosphere of grief, anger, and fear, granted the federal government too much power over innocent people or to track private records. One of the most controversial provisions was Section 215 of the Act, which gives the FBI permission to examine business records for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. Called the “library provision” because some have read it to mean that libraries will be required to turn over lists of who has checked out which books, it has been criticized as overly broad by groups such as the ACLU and the American Library Association, but also by political leaders from both parties.

Another point of contention is the existence of National Security Letters, which give federal law enforcement agencies the authority to access an individual’s personal records without first seeking a warrant. Opponents of this procedure said that such letters should only be issued when a reasonable connection can be made between the subject and terrorist activity. They also said that targets of these letters should have the right to challenge them in court.

As of the end of 2005 certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act were slated to sunset by February 2006, although members of Congress were planning to seek renewal or compromise on certain sections that were controversial.

Inside The USA PATRIOT Act