The Patriot Act in a nutshell

The USA PATRIOT Act, commonly known as the "Patriot Act", is a statute enacted[1] by the United States Government that President George W. Bush signed into law on October 26, 2001. The acronym stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (Public Law Pub.L. 107-56).

The Act increases the ability of law enforcement agencies to search telephone, e-mail communications, medical, financial, and other records; eases[2] restrictions on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States; expands the Secretary of the Treasury’s authority to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities; and enhances the discretion[3] of law enforcement and immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts. The act also expands the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, thus enlarging the number of activities to which the USA PATRIOT Act’s expanded law enforcement powers can be applied.

The Act was passed by wide margins[4] in both houses of Congress and was supported by members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Opponents of the law have criticized its authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants; searches through which law enforcement officers[5] search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s permission or knowledge; the expanded[6] use of National Security Letters, which allows the FBI to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order; and the expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records. Since its passage, several legal challenges have been brought against the act, and Federal courts have ruled that a number of provisions are unconstitutional[7].

Many of the act's provisions were to sunset[8] beginning December 31, 2005, approximately 4 years after its passage. In the months preceding the sunset date, supporters of the act pushed to make its sunsetting provisions permanent, while critics sought[9] to revise various sections to enhance civil liberty protections. In July 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a reauthorization bill with substantial changes to several sections of the act, while the House reauthorization bill kept most of the act's original language. The two bills were then reconciled in a conference committee that was criticized by Senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties for ignoring civil liberty concerns. The bill, which removed most of the changes from the Senate version, passed Congress on March 2, 2006, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 9 and 10, 2006.

Just 45 days after 9/11, the U.S House of Representatives voted 337-79 to pass the USA Patriot Act with virtually no debate. Some complained that no one could have had time to read the 342-page law before voting on it. According to the ACLU, “Many parts of this sweeping[10] legislation take away checks[11] on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling[12] to protect. For example, without a warrant[13] and without probable cause[14], the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records... and can prevent anyone from telling you it was done.

[1] To enact : décréter
[2] To ease : faciliter
[3] To enhance the discretion : améliorer la discrétion
[4] A wide margin : une grande marge
[5] Law enforcement officer : un policier
[6] To expand : étendre
[7] Unconstitutional : non constitutionnel
[8] To sunset : disposition de temproisation : mettre fin à une loi
[9] To seek / sought / sought : chercher
[10] To sweep : balayer
[11] To check : vérifier
[12] To struggle : se battre
[13] A warrant : un mandat
[14] Probable cause : cause probable

Get thinking!

Much has been talked about regarding Bush’s reaction at the moment he learned from his chief of staff that the nation was “under attack.” What do you think Bush -- who was visiting a Florida elementary school -- should have done at the moment he learned a second plane had hit the World Trade Center? How would you have reacted?

In the film, Michael Moore says that after learning of the attacks, “Nearly seven minutes passed with nobody doing anything...Not knowing what to do, with no one telling him what to do, Mr. Bush just sat there and continued to read ‘My Pet Goat’ with the children.”

Do you think Bush regularly has people telling him what to do? To what degree do you think Bush’s actions are influenced by his advisors and political affiliates or campaign contributors? How heavily does he rely on his staff for advice? Do you think a president should be intelligent and knowledgeable[1] him/herself or be able to choose intelligent and knowledgeable advisors?

Were you surprised to learn that Congress did not read the Patriot Act before voting on it? How do you feel about the fact that lawmakers are sometimes asked to vote on bills they have not read? Does that influence the democratic process? Do you think the system should be changed? If so, how?

In the film, Congressman Jim McDermott, who is a psychiatrist, said fear tactics, such as terror alerts, are “creating an aura of endless threat” when there is none. “You can make people do anything if they’re afraid,” he said; the government has “played us like an organ[2]” and the mixed messages of fear and safety are “crazy making.”

What is the purpose of color-coded terror alerts? Do you think people are more likely to relinquish[3] certain rights if they think they will be safer? Do you agree or disagree with Michael Moore’s assertion that the government “wanted us to be fearful enough to get behind their plan” of an Iraqi invasion? How do you feel about Moore’s point that prior to the invasion, Iraq had “never attacked or threatened to attack the United States?

[1] Knowledgeable : instruit
[2] To play someone like an organ : se faire avoir
[3] To reinquish : abandonner