On Exhibit: The Patriot Act

Today’s post comes from Andrew Grafton in the National Archives History Office

New York, NY, Sept. 14, 2001 — New York City firefighters and emergency personnel conduct response operations at Ground Zero following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. (National Archives Identifier 24476901)

October 2001, Washington, DC.

The United States has recently been attacked by terrorists intent on killing American citizens and striking a blow against U.S. morale in the fight against terror. Millions are afraid that a further attack is imminent. The public is adamant that the federal government take action.

Out of this environment of fear, and a desire for increased national security, the Patriot Act was born.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the September–October 2001 anthrax mail scare, public apprehension about the potential for further threats was at an all-time high.

As a result of these concerns, Congress proposed several bills to strengthen the power of federal law enforcement to preemptively apprehend terror plots. The ultimate goal was to ensure that terror threats like those on 9/11 would be detected by federal law enforcement agencies.

The first bill to make it to the floor of Congress was the so-called Combating Terrorism Act of 2001, proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) on September 19, and sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators.

President George W. Bush meets with the National Security Council on the morning of Thursday, September 20, 2001, in the Situation Room of the White House. Meeting with the President are, from left to right, FBI Director Robert Mueller (along the wall); Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis Libby; CIA Director George Tenet; Attorney General John Ashcroft; Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill; Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Colin Powell; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton. Photo by Eric Draper. (George W. Bush Presidential Library, National Archives)

The act would have made it easier for the President to mobilize the National Guard, and would have given the CIA greater authority to expand counterintelligence networks.  However, the amendment was ultimately deemed not strong enough to deal with the threats at hand.

Subsequently, the House of Representatives proposed a similar but primarily monetary-based solution, the Financial Anti-Terrorism Act, which was also proposed during mid-September of that year. The act would have tightened restrictions on money laundering and forfeiture. Though not enacted as a separate law, many portions of the bill were eventually incorporated into the Patriot Act.

Rediscovery #: 19417Job A1 09-052 NATF order
An Act to deter and punish terrorist acts in the U.S. and around the world and to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, 10/26/2001, [The Patriot Act]. (General Records of the United States Government, National Archives)
A version of the Patriot Act was officially proposed on the House floor on October 2, 2001, and was passed just 10 days later. A version of the bill was approved by the Senate, but the two chambers failed to reconcile their differences.

After further negotiation and amendment, the reconciled USA Patriot Act was introduced to the House on October 23 and received the necessary votes with little delay. The Senate also took quick action on the bill, and it landed on the President’s desk with votes of 357-66 and 98-1, respectively.

President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law on October 26, 2001. Upon his signature, revisions were made to 10 different chapters of the United States Code, particularly those related to surveillance, wiretapping, and other counterintelligence measures.

In the years following its enactment, the Patriot Act has come under harsh scrutiny from the American public for its potential to invade personal privacy rights. Accordingly, several suits have been filed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Efforts to repeal portions of the Patriot Act have found some success, as many provisions from the act that required phone companies to turn over records of their customers have been declared unconstitutional.

However, several portions of the law have been renewed. The act was wholly extended in July 2005 with additional authorizations for the NSA. On March 8, 2006, President Bush signed another reauthorization of the Patriot Act. The 2006 act amended some parts of the NSA wiretapping capabilities but kept the majority of the law intact.

Many portions of the Patriot Act expired on June 1, 2015. Yet, following the passage of the USA Freedom Act on June 2 of that year, parts of the Patriot Act remain in effect into 2019.

The National Archives is commemorating the 15th year anniversary of the Patriot Act by displaying the original in the Rubenstein Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC starting September 15, 2016.

Come visit the National Archives and see a piece of history for yourself!

President George W. Bush signs the USA PATRIOT Act into law in the East Room of the White House, October 26, 2001. (National Archives Identifier 5997381)


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