Plain Talk about the USA Patriot Act

A Brief Overview


"To an unprecedented degree, the Act sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating vast new powers in the executive branch of government."

Nancy Chang, Senior Litigation Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights


What is the USA Patriot Act?

On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed the USA Patriot ACT into law, an acronym for: "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." In the post-September 11th context, this law gave sweeping new powers to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence organizations and eliminated the checks and balances that previously gave courts the opportunity to ensure that these powers were not abused. The bill is 342 pages long and makes changes, some large and some small, to over 15 different statutes.


Why is the USA Patriot Act a threat to civil liberties?

Many of the provisions in the Act threaten constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. These include the First Amendment right to free speech, the Fourth Amendment rights to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures and to have searches conducted only when there is "probably cause" (e.g. to believe that a crime has been committed), the Fifth Amendment right to have "due process of law" (in criminal proceedings), and the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.


What are some of the problematic provisions and related executive orders that may violate our constitutional rights? The USA Patriot Act:

§         Significantly expands the government's ability to access sensitive medical, mental health, financial and educational records about individuals, and lower the burden of proof required to conduct secret searches and telephone and Internet surveillance;

§         Gives law enforcement expanded authority to obtain library records, and prohibits librarians from informing patrons of monitoring or information requests;

§         Gives the Attorney General and the Secretary of State the power to designate domestic groups, including religious and political organizations as 'terrorist organizations;'

§         Grants power to the Attorney General to subject citizens of other nations to indefinite detention or deportation even if they have not committed a crime;

§         Authorizes eavesdropping of confidential communications between attorneys and their clients in federal custody;

§         Limits disclosure of public documents and records under the Freedom of Information Act.

§         Has allowed for the secret detention of hundreds of people without charges, and has encouraged bureaucrats to resist public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.






But don't we need to give up some of our rights in order to be safe?

Balancing the rights of individuals with the good of the nation or community is an exercise that people in the U.S. have engaged in throughout U.S. history.  As Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director points out, the principles enshrined in our Constitution are the bedrock of our country. They define us as a people. They are the source of our strength as a nation. Checks and balances are the cornerstone of our democracy. Defending these principles at a time of national crisis is a moral imperative.


"History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. The World War II relocation-camp cases, and the Red Scare and McCarthy-era internal subversion cases, are only the most extreme reminders that when we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it."

 from Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissenting opinion in Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Association, 489 U.S. 602, 635 (1989)


Is anyone doing anything to oppose the Patriot Act?

Yes, some components of the Patriot Act have already been challenged with success in the courts. In addition, many organizations and activists have worked to get municipalities across the country to pass resolutions to repudiate the legislation and to protect their residents' civil liberties. Over 27 cities have passed resolutions opposing the USA Patriot Act and calling upon city agencies and private citizens to protect civil liberties and rights. Similar efforts are underway in over 50 cities and in 25 states. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee run by Massachusetts activist Nancy Talanian has played a leading role in the process of passing anti-Patriot Act resolutions.

Librarians are another group that has vehemently opposed the Patriot Act. The American Library Association recently passed a resolution related to the measures that impinge on the rights of library users.


How can I get involved in defending our civil liberties?

Join the growing movement to reclaim our civil liberties. Women Against War is working with other local organizations on a campaign to get Albany and other city councils to enact resolutions supporting their residents’ rights.  To get involved, contact Heidi Siegfried at the Capital District Chapter of the NY Civil Liberties Union, 518-436-8594 or contact the Education Committee of Women Against War at




We thank the following sources for information for this fact sheet: the ACLU-NC 1/22/03 Press Release; ACLU NYC 9/9/02 Press Release; "Issues We Work On--The Threat To Civil Liberties" at; "Cities Say No to Federal Snooping" by Julie Scheeres at; "USA Patriot Act Needs Dismantling" Editorial at; "Repeal the USA Patriot Act, Part IV Patriotism or Tyranny?" by JenniferVan Bergen at; and Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties by Nancy Chang, Center for Constitutional Rights, 2002.