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'If a Tree Falls' in Context

Domestic Terrorism in the United States: The USA PATRIOT Act

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed on December 6, 2002. The act reduces restrictions on law-enforcement officials' ability to gather and share information on suspected terrorists.

One of the provisions provided by the act is the sharing of information between intelligence and criminal investigators, which expands the scope of investigations and cooperation between departments. Additionally, in terrorism investigations, federal judges now have the authority to grant search warrants outside their districts, including providing access to electronic sources such as emails, and the authority to issue "sneak and peek" warrants, which authorities may use to search homes or businesses before notifying the suspects. "Roving wiretaps" now permit investigators to follow suspects continuously through various devices, including cell phones, Blackberry devices and computers, without requiring separate court authorization for each. The group of people the FBI can pursue has also expanded to include those who support terrorist organizations by providing them material resources.

Among the newer initiatives of the USA PATRIOT Act was the establishment of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which the FBI defines as "small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts and other specialists from dozens of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It is a multi-agency effort led by the Justice Department and FBI designed to combine the resources of federal, state and local law enforcement."

Critics of the USA PATRIOT Act maintain that such provisions lack the transparency to prevent abuses, allowing the government to access and amass information about, as well as search the property of, non-criminal citizens. The FBI defends its change in practices against public criticism of its constitutionality. In a 2004 statement, FBI director Robert Mueller said, "Many of our counterterrorism successes, in fact, are the direct results of provisions included in the Act . . . Without them, the FBI could be forced back into pre-September 11 practices, attempting to fight the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind our backs."

On May 27, 2011, President Obama signed into law a four-year extension of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Read the full act »

Photo caption: Daniel McGowan Credit: Photo still from If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front Sources:
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