The USA PATRIOT Act is a package of surveillance and intelligence law changes that were made in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Two of the most controversial provisions have directly affected libraries, as they substantially broaden the government’s ability to demand information about our users. With National Security Letters and FISA court orders, government agents can obtain almost any information with only the thinnest justification, and very little oversight. ARL participates actively in efforts to increase oversight and privacy protections in the law.


The USA PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress following 9/11, greatly expanded law enforcement’s counterterrorism authorities. On May 26, 2011, Congress voted to renew three expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act for four more years, until June 1, 2015. Due to expire were the "lone wolf" provision, the roaming wiretaps provision, and the "library provision" (Section 215). Majority leaders in both chambers described the move as a compromise despite the lengthy extension and total absence of reform and oversight provisions. The bill passed by large bipartisan majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, though the number of votes against renewal was higher (and also more bipartisan) than in previous years. President Obama, who advocated reform as a Senator, signed the extension into law.

In February of 2011, ARL and ALA sent a letter to Sen. Leahy (PDF) (Chair, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, D-VT) supporting reform of the act. In the letter, the library associations supported additional judicial oversight for use of surveillance tools when they implicate reader privacy; codification of the reforms adopted voluntarily by Attorney General Eric Holder, including protections for library records; a new sunset for National Security Letters (NSLs); repeal of the presumption of relevance for certain Section 215 orders; and restoration of the constitutional rights of gag-order recipients.

External Resources

Previous Legislative Efforts to Update the USA PATRIOT Act



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