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Online NewsHour:U.S. Response to Terrorism
Update:Federal court upholds U.S. government's wiretapping powers. 11.18.02
The Patriot Act Posted:02.12.03
Is the government protecting U.S. citizens from future terrorist attacks or invading their privacy?
It's been more than a year since President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law, the anti-terrorism legislation created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The act, whose name stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, aims to widen the powers of law enforcement officers and intelligence officials (those who gather secret information) to help detect terrorist activity.
However, critics say the act may go too far in its mission to protect U.S. citizens, and may violate individual civil liberties -- the basic individual rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, protected by law.
A need for change
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government discovered that some of the hijackers had been living in the country illegally as they made their plans. The government decided that in order to prevent similar failures to detect terrorists, it needed to expand the power of certain agencies like the FBI and CIA.
During the Oct. 26, 2001 ceremony signing the bill into law, President Bush said the new legislation would "give intelligence and law enforcement officials important new tools to fight a present danger."
New tools for a new time
These new tools are at the center of a heated debate. The act allows law enforcement officials to use a number of different methods to monitor terrorist activity, including the tracking of communications on the Internet - a development the president said was necessary to keep up with modern criminals.
"We're dealing with terrorists who operate by highly sophisticated methods and technologies, some of which were not even available when our existing laws were written," Mr. Bush said.
The new law also allows investigators to install telephone and computer wiretaps and obtain search warrants for voice mail and e-mail messages. In addition, agencies can more easily access personal information, like medical, financial, educational and library records, often without any proof of a crime.
Defending the expanded surveillance authority, the president pointed out that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used computers and books at a Florida public library - moves that could have provided necessary clues if their communication was detected.
However American Library Association President Maurice J. Freedman worries about the message the new power will send.
"Some of this stuff is pretty scary, and we are very concerned that people's privacy is being violated," he said.
Will history repeat itself?
This is not the first time that government surveillance has raised eyebrows. During the 1950s and '60s, the FBI created an intelligence program called COINTELPRO, which spied on U.S. citizens who voiced political opposition to the government.
In the mid-1970s, a group called the Citizens Committee to Investigate the FBI removed secret files from an FBI office in Pennsylvania and released the details to the press. The files showed that the FBI had illegally spied on thousands of citizens, including President John F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
The American Civil Liberties Union, an 80-year-old civil rights watchdog organization, calls the USA PATRIOT Act a "surveillance monster" and argues that there are "virtually no rules" governing security tools like video surveillance cameras.
Twenty-nine local districts in 14 different states have passed resolutions protesting the use of the Patriot Act in their cities. Last month, San Francisco became the largest city to follow that lead.
"I have introduced this resolution to send a message to the Bush Administration that individual citizens will not tolerate these widespread violations of their civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism," San Francisco's Jake McGoldrick told the city legislature.
Yet these resolutions are really just formal statements considered symbolic because the act falls under federal law, not state law.
One of the concerns is that immigrants will be targeted unnecessarily in the hunt for terrorists. Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, a senator who opposed the USA PATRIOT Act, said he feared that immigrants from Arab, Muslim, and South Asian countries will "bear the brunt" of investigations.
"In the wake of these terrible events our government has been given vast new powers and they may fall most heavily on a minority of our population who already feel particularly acutely the pain of this disaster," Feingold said.
Supporters point to language in the bill itself that says, "the civil rights and liberties of all Americans, including Arab Americans, must be protected, and that every effort must be taken to preserve their safety."
Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a statement right after the signing of the bill to reassure the public that the Justice Department and other agencies would use the powers the act grants without stepping on citizens' rights.
"The American people can be assured law enforcement will use these new tools to protect our nation while upholding the sacred liberties expressed in the Constitution," Ashcroft said.
-- By Raven Tyler, NewsHour Extra
What is your view? In a 400-450 word essay, explain whether the new Patriot Act is a necessary part of life after September 11 or whether it oversteps the boundaries of privacy invasion. Send your completed essay to NewsHour Extra (firstname.lastname@example.org). Exceptional essays may be published on our Web site.
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