Everything you need to know about the Patriot Act debate

After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement and intelligence authorities unprecedented domestic authority to avert plots against the United States.

Is this how the NSA started collecting phone records on millions of Americans? The 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 eventually used the Patriot Act to justify its program, enshrining it in law.

What can the NSA learn without listening to the call? The NSA can piece together information about a person by analyzing phone metadata. The agency stores the data for five years and retains access to information.

How does the Patriot Act authorize the NSA to collect that information? The government can request from the FISA court a secret warrant that can force phone companies to hand over private information. The recipient of the warrant is barred from discussing the warrant with anyone. 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 government could collect and store the data of millions of Americans even though "the vast majority of (data collected) will not be terrorist-related."

Why are some lawmakers opposed to reforming the Patriot Act? For opponents of reform, it's all about national security. They cite the growing terrorist threats to the US as ISIS continues to expand its reach online, inspiring attacks in Europe and the U.S.

Terrorism is deadly serious. Why do some lawmakers want us to restrict our intelligence-gathering capabilities? Reformers insist there's 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 stopping 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, for example, by ensuring that there is no lapse in surveillance between different agencies when a potential terrorist enters the US. Reformers also point out that the FISA court is creating a body of "secret law." The US Freedom Act would require declassification of major FISA court decisions like the one that authorized bulk data collection.

[Note: Congress passed the US Freedom Act in June 2015.]

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