Civil Liberties and the War on Terror

The government's response to September 11 raised serious civil liberties issues. President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct "warrantless wiretaps" on communications originating outside the United States from individuals suspected or known to have ties to terrorist organizations. The USA Patriot Act (2001) gave the government new powers to gather information. It could monitor a person's e-mail simply by showing that the information was relevant to an ongoing criminal case. The legislation also expanded the use of "sneak and peak" warrants, where a search of a person's property is conducted without his or her knowledge, and gave the government broad access to records of individuals as part of an investigation of international terrorism or espionage; the latter provision might include what books the person checked out of a library or purchased at a bookstore. Congress addressed some but not all of these civil liberties concerns when the Patriot Act was reauthorized in 2006. Finding the right balance between protecting civil liberties and protecting the country is an ongoing challenge facing the executive branch, Congress, and the courts.