Passed as a response to the attacks of September 11, and signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 26th 2001, the USA PATRIOT ACT significantly changed laws concerning the government’s ability to conduct wiretapping and Internet surveillance, carry out arrests and detention, and created a mechanism for the FBI to search an individual’s property without informing him or her for weeks thereafter. Among the most criticized provisions of the PATRIOT Act were those included in Section 215, which allowed the FBI to order any person or entity to turn over emails, lists of websites visited and even library records so long as the FBI specified that the order related to an investigation of terrorism or foreign espionage. The FBI did not need to provide evidence of criminal activity to order records under Section 215, and those served with a Section 215 order could not legally disclose the fact that they received such an order.
Sixteen of the USA Patriot Act’s most controversial anti-terrorism provisions were set to expire on December 31st, 2005, unless reauthorized in the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act. In the final weeks of debate regarding the reauthorization of this bill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed to filibuster unless stronger civil liberties protections were included. To avoid the expiration of these sixteen provisions, Congress and the Bush administration compromised on a five week extension of the USA PATRIOT Act. Eventually, enough lawmakers agreed upon a final version of the bill that it passed in March of 2006. The reauthorized bill omitted the Section 215 libraries functioning in their traditional roles are not subject to Sec. 215 letters but failed to include a provision requiring evidence linking the recipient of a National Security Letter or Section 215 order to an actual terrorism investigation or an agent of a foreign power.