The USA Patriot Act of 2001 authorized unprecedented surveillance of American citizens and individuals worldwide without traditional civil liberties safeguards.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act or Patriot Act). The Act was introduced less than a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks and passed with little debate or opposition. The Patriot Act expanded surveillance for law enforcement by:

  • Expanding domestic and international wiretapping and pen register monitoring;
  • Expanding authority to access electronic communications;
  • Allowing secret “sneak and peak” searches;
  • Removing privacy protections to allow federal agencies to share more information; and
  • Expanding funding to federal law enforcement agencies.

The Patriot Act was written with “sunset” provisions requiring Congress to re-authorize the program every few years. Although the Act expired in March, 2020 without being reauthorized, federal law enforcement agencies retain most of the authorities granted by the act. The surveillance infrastructure that the Patriot Act created exists to this day. The Patriot Act is a prominent example of the use of terrorism to justify expanding government surveillance.


The Patriot Act was passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Although many provisions of the Act had been proposed before to substantial criticism, Congress swiftly approved the Act with little debate and no House, Senate, or conference report.

When the legislative proposals were introduced by the Bush administration in the aftermath of September 11th, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave Congress one week in which to pass the bill — without changes. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, managed to convince the Justice Department to agree to some changes, and members of the House began to make significant improvements. However, the Attorney General warned that further terrorist acts were imminent, and that Congress could be to blame for such attacks if it failed to pass the bill immediately.

Extensive and hurried negotiation in the Senate resulted in a bipartisan bill, stripped of many of the concessions won by Sen. Leahy. Senator. Thomas Daschle, the majority leader, sought unanimous consent to pass the proposal without debate or amendment; Senator Russ Feingold was the only member to object.

Minor changes were made in the House, which passed the bill 357 to 66. The Senate and House versions were quickly reconciled, and the Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001. Over the years, many provisions of the Patriot Act were challenged in court and declared unconstitutional as violations of the Fourth Amendment.

Overview and Analysis

The USA PATRIOT Act introduced sweeping changes to U.S. law, including amendments to twelve major federal laws setting limits on law enforcement investigations:

Many provisions of the Patriot Act expand law enforcement authority to conduct investigations, expand the permitted scope of those investigations, and remove privacy protections previously written into federal law. Here are some of the most consequential  provisions:

Monitoring Telephone Communications: The Act increases the ability of law enforcement agencies to authorize installation of pen registers and trap and trace devices (a pen register collects the outgoing phone numbers placed from a specific telephone line; a trap and trace device captures the incoming numbers placed to a specific phone line — a caller-id box is a trap and trace device), and to authorize the installation of such devices to record all computer routing, addressing, and signaling information. (Section 216). This includes authority to request nationwide search warrants and issue nationwide surveillance orders. The Act also expands authority to use wiretaps to listen in on phone calls. (Section 206).

Expanding the Reach of FISA: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes monitoring of phone calls and other communications without a warrant from a regular federal court. Instead FISA created its’ own court to authorize intelligence surveillance, ruling in secret and not subject to oversight. The Patriot Act broadened the reach of FISA by removing the requirement that gaining foreign intelligence be the primary purpose of the investigation.

VoiceMail Access: The Patriot Act amended Title III and the Stored Communications Access Act so that electronically stored voice-mail communications, may be obtained by the government through a search warrant rather than through more stringent wiretap orders. (Section 204).

Sneak and Peek Searches: The Act eliminated a requirement for “contemporaneous” notice when law enforcement perform a search or seizes a person’s property. Law enforcement instead must provide notice in a “reasonable period”, which can be deferred indefinitely. (Section 213).

Expanding Subpoenas for Electronic Information: Under federal law, agencies can require internet service providers to disclose information about their customers without a warrant. The Patriot Act expanded the amount of information that agencies can obtain through subpoenas. (Section 210)

The Act also extends the government’s ability to gain access to personal financial information and student information without any suspicion of wrongdoing, simply by certifying that the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. (Title III).

EPIC’s Work

EPIC objected to many provisions of the Patriot Act when it was passed. In the years since EPIC used the Freedom of Information Act to find out how the FBI and other federal agencies were using Patriot Act authorities. EPIC advocates against renewal of the Patriot Act.

Recent Documents on PATRIOT Act

Support Our Work

EPIC's work is funded by the support of individuals like you, who help us to continue to protect privacy, open government, and democratic values in the information age.