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President George W. Bush
Photo: Dept. of Defense

Hailed by President Bush as "an essential step in defeating terrorism," the Patriot Act of 2001 significantly broadens the powers of the federal government to investigate and prosecute those suspected of committing acts of terror. But critics say the law goes too far and that it violates the spirit, perhaps even the letter, of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives and with only a single dissenting vote in the Senate, the law:

  • Expands surveillance powers of the FBI to monitor lines of electronic communication, including phone conversations, e-mail and voice mail.
  • Broadens the scope of wiretap warrants. Previously, federal officials had to obtain warrants from a judge in each locality where they sought to use a wiretap. Under the new law, a warrant issued in one part of the U.S. works nationwide. The Patriot Act also grants judges greater leeway under the law to issue such warrants.
  • Increases the numbers of crimes defined as acts of terrorism to explicitly include any act of aiding or abetting a terrorist.
  • Stiffens penalties for those convicted of terrorism.
  • Expands federal authorities' power to seize financial assets of suspected terrorists. In particular, it allows the U.S. Treasury Department to impose sanctions against foreign banks that do not cooperate adequately with FBI investigations into accounts in their institutions.
  • Extends the statute of limitations under which alleged terrorists can be tried, in some cases indefinitely.
  • Lengthens from two days to seven days the period of time the government can detain immigrants suspected of terrorist activities without officially filing charges. In some special cases that period can be extended as long as six months.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who helped push the bill through Congress, said that the law provided "careful, balanced and long overdue improvements in our capacity to prevent terrorism." Others in national law enforcement were similarly pleased.

But civil rights groups contend the new law goes too far. Reacting to its passage in the House of Representatives on October 24, Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington National Office said, "This legislation is based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties. We can be safe and fight terrorism without substantially surrendering our civil liberties."

Once the bill was signed into law, however, the ACLU shifted its focus to ensuring that the act is enforced fairly and constitutionally. "The passage of this broad legislation is by no means the end of the story," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "We will now work with ACLU affiliates around the country to monitor its implementation. The ACLU remains firm in our belief that we can be both safe and free." To that end, the ACLU planned to meet with FBI officials to discuss how the bill would be enforced.

To read the official summary of the Patriot Act of 2001 click here.

To read about the ACLU's objections to the bill, click here.

An MTV News Staff report

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