The USA Patriot Act passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It flows from a consultation draft circulated by the Department of Justice, to which Congress made substantial modifications and additions. The stated purpose of the Act is to enable law enforcement officials to track don and punish those responsible for the attacks and to protect against similar attacks.
The Act grants federal officials greater powers to trace and intercept terrorists’ communications both for law enforcement and foreign intelligence purposes. It reinforces federal anti-money laundering laws and regulations in an effort to deny terrorists the resources necessary for future attacks. It tightens our immigration laws to close our borders to foreign terrorists and to expel those among us. Finally, it creates a few new federal crimes, such as the one outlawing terrorists’ attacks on mass transit; increases the penalties for many others; and institutes several procedural changes, such as a longer statute of limitations for crimes of terrorism.
Critics have suggested that it may go too far. The authority to monitor e-mail traffic, to share grand jury information with intelligence and immigration officers, to confiscate property, and to impose new book-keeping requirements on financial institutions, are among the features troubling to some.
The Act itself responds to some of those reservations. Many of the wiretapping and foreign intelligence amendments sunset on December 31, 2005. The Act creates judicial safeguards for e-mail monitoring and grand jury disclosures; recognizes innocent owner defenses to forfeiture; and entrusts enhanced anti-money laundering powers to those regulatory authorities whose concerns include the well being of our financial institutions.