Everything you need to know about the Patriot Act debate

What is the Patriot Act?

Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement and intelligence authorities unprecedented domestic authority -- and the tools to wield that authority -- to thwart plots against the United States.

So that part about cell phones. That's how the NSA started collecting phone records on millions of Americans?

That practice of bulk metadata (the caller's number, the receiver's number, the time and location of the call, and how long it lasted) collection began secretly in 2001 after Bush used his executive authority to give the NSA the go-ahead to begin sweeping phone and Internet records.

The Bush administration would eventually use the Patriot Act to justify its program -- enshrining it in law.

OK, but how much can the NSA actually learn without listening in to the call?

The NSA can actually piece together lots of information about a person by analyzing phone metadata. The agency stores the data for five years and retains access to information.

So what in the Patriot Act authorizes the NSA to rake in that information?

The government can request from the FISA court a secret warrant that can force companies, such as Verizon, to hand over private information. The recipient of the warrant is barred from discussing the warrant with anyone, due to national security concerns.

The Patriot Act stresses that the government can only request a warrant to obtain information that is "relevant to an ongoing investigation against international terrorism."

How is the data of millions of Americans "relevant" to terrorism investigations?

The Bush administration argued that the metadata program could only be successful if the government collected and stored the data of millions of Americans, even though "the vast majority of (data collected) will not be terrorist-related."

Why are some lawmakers so opposed to reforming the Patriot Act?

For opponents of reform, it's all about national security. They cite the growing terrorist threats to the U.S. as ISIS continues to grow in Syria and Iraq and expands its reach online, inspiring attacks in Europe and the U.S.

Terrorism is deadly serious. Why do some lawmakers want us to restrict any of our intelligence-gathering capabilities?

Reformers insist there's actually little to fear from reforming domestic surveillance. The government hasn't been able to provide any examples where the NSA's bulk data collection played a key role in thwarting a terror plot.

How are supporters of reform pushing back against national security concerns?

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said: "You can have a very high level of protection of civil liberties and a very high level of national security. In fact, we believe this bill strengthens both."

He noted that the US Freedom Act bill would strengthen some provisions of the Patriot Act, ensuring, for example, that there is no lapse in surveillance between different agencies when a potential terrorist enters the U.S. and the FBI takes over -- without needing new authorization from the FISA court.

Reformers also point out that the FISA court is creating a body of what they call "secret law." The USA Freedom Act would require declassification of major FISA court decisions -- like the one that authorized bulk data collection.

[Note: The US Freedom Act was passed by Congress in June, 2015.]

Source: Everything you need to know about the Patriot Act debate
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