History of the Patriot Act




It is worth remembering that when our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn't mean it to apply to everyone.  American Indians were not included.  Slaves were not included.  Women, indentured servants, men without property--none of these were included.  When the first Congress of the United States added on the Bill of Rights, "…these amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people's liberties:  to speak, to publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official intrusion…." 1 Yet, they did not apply to much of the population.  Years and years of struggle, in some instances outright rebellion, broadened the picture.  But there still remain significant sectors of our society to whom these principles do not apply.  The largest and, these days, most obvious, are the foreign-born. 


Under the guise of the war on terrorism, the U.S. government has launched a massive attack on immigrants from Muslim, Arab, and South Asian countries.  The legal framework for this attack is the USA Patriot Act of 2001.  The larger target is the suppression of dissent in the USA.


     It is hard to believe the Act could have been drafted, debated, and passed

     in only 45 days.  It is over 342 pages long and extremely complicated.  Given

     its complexity, and the fact the legislation represented a wish list of new

     investigative and detention powers long sought by law enforcement officials,

     it is more likely the pro-law enforcement Adminstration had been drafting such

     provisions for many months.  Post-September 11 provided the perfect opportunity

     to introduce them, with very little Congressional or public opposition….2


In fact, much of the content of the Patriot Act was based on a report by the bi-partisan Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security/21st Century, issued on September 15, 19993, two years before 9/11.  Concerns about the need for war in the Middle East to protect U.S. interests and sources of oil, and possible public distaste for such a program, had been brewing for some time.


Shortly after passage of the Patriot Act, the government secretly arrested and jailed more than 1200 people as part of its post-September 11 investigation.  Their names, numbers, countries of origin, whereabouts, reasons for their arrest, were classified information.  Some were kept as long as seven months without being charged or allowed to see their families, despite protests by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and scores of other organizations.  Mosques and Muslim charities have been visited by the FBI and asked to provide lists of their members and donors.  Assets of many Muslim charities have been frozen by the Treasury Department on suspicion they were being funneled to terrorist organizations.


Nearly 700 prisoners taken during the war in Afghanistan were transported to a prison camp hurriedly built at the American army base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  They come from 40 nations and speak 17 different languages.  The government asserts they are not prisoners of war but "enemy combatants," and therefore not entitled to protection from interrogation guaranteed by the Geneva Convention. They are interrogated up to 16 hours a day.  Nor, since they are not on U.S. soil, are they entitled to U.S. legal protections such as the right to counsel, presumption of innocence, and a trial by jury.  None has been charged with a crime. The government plans to try them by military tribunal, and some could be sentenced to death.


The Act created a Department of Homeland Security which now oversees immigration matters.  Starting in December 2002, men and boys over 16 from 24 Muslim, Arab and South Asian countries were ordered to register at the INS.  13,000 are now scheduled for deportation--not for charges relating to terrorism, but for minor visa violations, many caused by the backlog of cases at the Bureau of Immigration. Plans by Homeland Security to have them re-register in December of 2003 were cancelled after mounting protests.


The Patriot Act created a federal crime of "domestic" terrorism, and the definition is broad enough to worry many activist organizations: "…acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of criminal laws" if they "appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government…"  Could mass protests fit this definition?  Acts of civil disobedience?  Strikes?   In addition, the Justice Department admitted recently that many of the provisions of the Patriot Act which allow greater opportunities for surveillance, search, and seizure are now being used on domestic cases with no connection to terrorism.  


Congress has, in other words, handed the government broad powers, free of the usual checks and balances, which it is permitted to exercise in almost total secrecy.  Why does the government want this?  Clearly, it has a chilling effect on dissent…which allows the government to wage wars, defend corporate profits, and attack entitlements at will.  The government seeks further expansion of its powers in the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, also known as Patriot Act II.  Attorney General Ashcroft says extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.  The administration says the war on terrorism may last for years.  The Gray Panthers say:




Repeal the USA Patriot Act!


Oppose the Domestic Security Enhancement Act!


Stop the Registrations and Deportations!






1 Howard Zinn.  People's History of the United States, p.99.

2 Jim Cornehis. "The USA Patriot Act. The assault on civil liberties." Z Magazine, July/August 2003, Volume 16 Number 7/8, p.35

3 United States Commission on National Security/21. “New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century.”. September 15, 1999. http://www.nssg.gov.