Explainer: What You Should Know About the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: What You Should Know About the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act

patriot-actWhy is the Patriot Act back in the news?

Last night three key provisions of the law were allowed to expire (at least temporarily) after Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked an extension of the program during a Sunday session of the Senate.

What is the Patriot Act?

The official title of the law is the USA Patriot Act of 2001, an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” The 320-page law, signed a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a series of bioterrorism incidents (i.e., anthrax attacks), was intended to “deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.”

Beginning on December 31, 2005, many provisions of the act were set to expire unless Congress reauthorized them. Out of the sixteen sections, 13 were allowed to expire while three were reauthorized. After approval by Congress, President Bush signed an extension in 2006 and President Obama signed an extension in 2011. On June 1, 2015 the last three sections expired.

What were those last three sections that just expired?

The three sections that recently expired were:

Section 206: Roving surveillance authority — This section added one line to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow roving surveillance of people being investigated for involvement in terrorist activities. For example, if a suspect buys a new cell phone, a new court order doesn’t have to be issued for the new phone. This change brought the roving surveillance of intelligence agency investigations into line with criminal investigations.

Section 215: Access to records and other items under FISAThis section, sometimes referred to as the “library records” provision, modified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) to allow the Director of the FBI to apply for an order to produce materials that assist in an investigation undertaken to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. The Act specifically includes “books, records, papers, documents, and other items”.

Any order that is granted must be given by a FISA court judge or by a magistrate judge who is publicly designated by the Chief Justice of the United States to allow such an order to be given. Any application must prove that it is being conducted without violating the First Amendment rights of any U.S. citizens. The application can only be used to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a U.S. citizen or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.

Section 6001: Individual Terrorists As Agents Of Foreign Powers — This section, sometimes know as a the “Lone Wolf provision”, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) to add this phrase: “engages in international terrorism or activities in preparation therefore; or’’. This change permits surveillance of non-U.S. persons engaged in international terrorism without requiring evidence linking those persons to an identifiable foreign power or terrorist organization.

What is the Freedom Act?

The official title of the bill is the USA Freedom Act, an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act.” The bill was originally introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress on October 29, 2013 and reintroduced last year.

The purpose of the bill is to “reform the authorities of the Federal Government to require the production of certain business records, conduct electronic surveillance, use pen registers and trap and trace devices, and use other forms of information gathering for foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, and criminal purposes, and for other purposes.”

In effect, the law would end the bulk collection of metadata by agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA), end the secret laws created by the FISA court, and introduce a “Special Advocate” to represent public and privacy matters. The bill would also re-extend the roving wiretap and “lone wolf” provisions of the Patriot Act.

Will the Freedom Act become law?

Most likely. The House overwhelmingly passed that bill last month and Senators voted, 77 to 17, on Sunday to take up the House bill. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure later this week. President Obama supports the bill so if it passes the Senate he’ll sign it into law.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).