Talking Points

The Patriot Act is 20 years old. It shouldn't survive to 21.

Tuesday is the 20th anniversary of the Patriot Act, the sweeping authorization of invasive federal surveillance powers passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Congress should observe the two-decade mark by starting work to repeal the law in full.

Much like the Iraq War in 2003, the Patriot Act began with lies. The George W. Bush administration claimed its changes would be "modest" and "incremental," characterizing the law as a means of taking "existing legal principles and retrofitt[ing] them to preserve the lives and liberty of the American people from the challenges posed by a global terrorist network." As civil libertarians argued at the time and subsequent years have demonstrated ad nauseum — not least via the 2013 revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — none of that was true.

Even the name of the bill was a lie. "Patriot," originally rendered in all caps, stands for "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." But the tools provided were anything but appropriate, and they've been used to fight the war on drugs more than the war on terror. In fact, the Justice Department admitted in 2015 that, after 14 years, the spying capabilities authorized by the law's controversial Section 215 — which, until it expired last year, allowed the feds to secretly obtain communications records based on vague assertions of relevance to international terrorism — had helped crack exactly zero significant terror cases.

Since 2001, the Patriot Act has undergone some reform, chiefly through the USA Freedom Act and that expiration of powers in 2020. That's better than nothing, but not nearly enough, as former Sen. Russ Feingold (D–Wisc.) argues today in a well-deserved I-told-you-so in The Nation. The Patriot Act centralized unchecked power in the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches, says Feingold, who was the only member of the upper chamber to vote against the bill in 2001.

But, he writes, Congress could still reverse its mistake: "Twenty years is 20 years too long to sacrifice civil rights and to defer to the executive branch with sweeping surveillance authorities. To prove we've learned this lesson will require more than tweaks." It will require complete repeal.