|The Patriot Act is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in US history [GALLO/GETTY]|
Just 45 days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Bush administration passed the US Patriot Act, a raft of legislation that gave the federal government far-reaching powers to gather information about their citizens.
Civil rights groups were horrified by what the act allowed. Under the new laws, the government could collect personal information about anyone in the US using a range of controversial methods.
Now three of the most contentious provisions of the act are up for renewal, and debate in the US over how far anti-terrorism legislation should be allowed to infringe on the liberties of ordinary citizens has reignited.
With the provisions due to expire at the end of the year, the US Congress has been gathering testimony from experts to help decide whether they should be renewed.
Some defend the laws, believing them to be an important part of national security, while others oppose the powers.
Last month the American Civil Liberties Union called for the provisions to be overhauled.
“More than seven years after its implementation there is little evidence that the Patriot Act has been effective in making America more secure from terrorists,” the organisation told politicians.
“However, there are many unfortunate examples that the government abused these authorities in ways that both violate the rights of innocent people and squander precious security resources.”
Spying on citizens
But those hoping that Barack Obama, the US president, will ask Congress to scrap the laws look set to be disappointed. His administration has said that the provisions are “important authorities” in the fight against terrorism.
It has, however, indicated that it is open to some modifications, as long as they do not reduce the “effectiveness” of the provisions.
As they stand, the three provisions have allowed the US government to gather more private information from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans than at any other point in history.
The first allows so-called “roving wire-taps”, which target an individual, rather than a specific device. Any communications device that could be used by the target can be tapped under the provision.
Critics say that public telephones and library computers become possible targets, allowing the government to gather information about everyone who uses them.
The second provision allows the court to authorise access to an individual’s “business records”, including financial and medical information.
After applying for a court order that is rarely refused, investigators can demand that third parties – businesses, doctors, and anyone else who might have information of interest – hand over “any tangible thing” and then gag them.
But it is the third provision that is, perhaps, the most controversial.
The so-called “lone-wolf” provision allows the government to monitor an individual without demonstrating to a court that there is any evidence that the target is involved in espionage or terrorism.
Opponents of the legislation say that together, these provisions effectively allow the government to spy on American citizens.
Elizabeth Goitein, the director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Project in Washington DC, believes that the laws are not only unnecessarily intrusive, but that they actually hinder the fight against terrorism.
“These provisions allow the government to intrude into the lives of innocent people with no connection to terrorism,” she says. “Once you get this far removed from illegal activity, it becomes a waste of resources.”
Change we can believe in?
|Barack Obama has backed the laws [GALLO/GETTY]|
Concerns like this have prompted some liberal congressmen to propose replacements for the laws, which they say will safeguard against the government trampling on the rights of its citizens in the name of national security.
One of these alternatives is known as the Justice Act. It does not remove the right to access personal information in counter-terrorism and espionage operations, but raises the standard of evidence required to authorise surveillance investigations.
The aim is to make it more difficult for the government to operate “drag-net” intelligence gathering programmes that compromise the privacy of ordinary people.
But there is no guarantee that such proposals will pass into law, and some believe that the Obama administration’s quiet endorsement of the current provisions could sink attempts at serious reform.
Goitein does not hold out much hope for substantial overhaul of the laws.
“I suspect that there will be minor changes and improvements to the provisions, but I don’t think that they will go nearly as far as they ought to,” she says.
“It’s a shame that Congress doesn’t seem to be taking this chance to conduct more extensive reforms.”
After Obama’s presidential campaign centred around ushering in a new era of transparency and open government in Washington, many are disappointed at the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations on the issue.
But Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, is not surprised by what he has seen in the new president’s first months in charge.
“There has been a change in tone and in rhetoric, but the actual policies have not yet changed accordingly,” he says. “It was never realistic to expect the new administration to reverse course immediately.
“There are other considerations besides transparency … There is still a possibility and an expectation of further changes in policy.”
Goitein sees the potential for more comprehensive reform of the Patriot Act in the future, but believes it is unlikely to be initiated by the White House.
She says: “Presidents of this country do not readily give away powers they have inherited.”
Andrew Wander, a media fellow with legal charity Reprieve, works on Al Jazeera’s Public Liberties and Human Rights Desk.