On Oct. 26, 2001, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, a controversial bill aimed at enhancing the United States’ ability to record, analyze and thwart terrorism before it occurs. Enacted just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, some argue that the bill was rushed into effect and potentially compromises many Americans’ constitutional rights. Others disagree, stating that the bill is still necessary in helping to protect the country from potential terrorist threats.
The benefits of the Patriot Act are evident. It has removed many of the barriers previously confining government agencies from acting on intelligence they discover. These new capabilities have led to the convictions of hundreds of terrorists, shutting down numerous terrorist plots in the process. On top of that, the Patriot Act allocates aid to the victims affected by these tragedies.
Despite the advantages, the Patriot Act has some drawbacks. The main concern for many Americans is the invasion of privacy that multiple government organizations are able to execute under it. Phone taps as well as GPS and IP address tracking are a few of the many ways the government is able to record and locate phone and online exchanges. In addition, the wrongful imprisonment of suspected terrorists, held without the acknowledgement of their civil rights or due process, has led to a stir of debates regarding the constitutionality of the bill.
The Patriot Act made headlines back in June 2013 when Eric Snowden began leaking classified information regarding the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden (viewed as everything from a hero to a whistle-blower to a traitor) released details stating that Section 215 of the Patriot Act gives the U.S. the ability to require businesses to turn over any and all of their customer’s records. This, essentially, provides the U.S. with access to any information they desire.
The Patriot Act has recently reemerged on the news and in debates because the many aspects of the bill are set to expire at the end of May 2015. Section 215 and the NSA “phone-snooping” program (allows the agency to collect numbers, dates and durations of calls made in the U.S.) are up for debate.
Nearly without opposition, the bill to extend the Patriot Act’s powers passed through the House with an astonishing 338–88 vote. The Senate, however, did not meet the bill with the same enthusiasm. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made every attempt to extend the bill but was met with opposition from an unlikely source, fellow Republican Rand Paul. The 2016 presidential candidate led a filibuster to block the extension of the bill past the May 31 deadline.
The filibuster proved successful for Senator Paul, as the 57–42 vote count failed to reach the 60-vote minimum required to clear a filibuster. The Senate followed up with a two-month proposed extension, which also fell short with a 54–45 vote.
Despite pressure from the White House to follow the bipartisan vote of its congressional counterpart, the Senate stood resolute, continuing to reject any expansion.
The Senate recessed for Memorial Day but was set to reconvene on May 31, the last day to pass any extensions. As of 12:01 a.m. on Monday, June 1, the Senate has allowed parts of the Patriot Act to expire. The NSA and FBI are unable to use Section 215 to begin any new investigations, but they are permitted to use it in investigations that were already in progress before June 1.
(Update: As of June 1st, three provisions of the Patriot Act expired… For now. The Senate let three provisions of the Patriot Act expire: Section 215, the section the government uses to collect phone and other business records in bulk, the “Lone Wolf provision,” and the “roving wiretap” provision. Section 215 now—at least temporarily—reverts to its pre-Patriot Act form, which doesn’t permit any collection of financial or communications records, and requires the Government to provide “specific and articulable facts” supporting a reason to believe that the target is an agent of a foreign power.)