In the dozen years that have passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress has enacted a series of laws aimed at keeping the country safe. But today, the same measures and mandates that were once put in place for the country’s protection have come under attack.
Hardest hit: the Patriot Act.
On Tuesday, its author, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., said he supports a bipartisan push to amend the legislation and came out strongly against the Obama administration, which he accuses of manipulating the measure to cover questionable moves recently made by the National Security Agency.
Sensenbrenner says the Patriot Act was written in 2001 to give the president the authority to investigate and prevent terrorist activity. What he says it wasn’t intended for is spying on the phone and Internet records of Americans.
When first written, the Patriot Act significantly loosened restrictions on how law enforcement agencies could gather information, expanded the Treasury’s authority to regulate financial transactions involving foreign individuals and entities and broadened the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism-related offenses.
The Act also widened the definition of terrorism to include cases of domestic or home-grown terrorism. Critics say that using the Patriot Act has been a way for the administration to rubber stamp spying on its citizens and that the safety checks put in place to prevent abuse have gone unchecked for years.
In 2011, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act. It did the same for the FISA Amendments Act in December 2012. Both acts allowed the government to continue its extraordinary power more than a decade after the laws were first passed to hunt down those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
In its annual report to Congress, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said it had gotten 1,789 applications for electronic surveillance. Of those, one application was withdrawn, 40 were approved with edits and the others – all 1,748 of them - were quickly green-lighted.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to the FISC asking for the release of secret court opinions on section 215 of the Patriot Act which authorizes the collection of phone records.
On Tuesday, the ACLU went a step further when it filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration charging that its “dragnet” collection of phone calls exposed by a NSA contractor is illegal. The lawsuits asks that the records be purged and that the government be forced to stop the program.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been lining up for months trying to rein in the government’s power grab.
On the House side, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced legislation Tuesday that would repeal the broad authority for the use of military force in the war on terror.
The law, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, is a joint resolution that Congress passed on Sept. 14, 2001, authorizing the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The resolution gives the president the authority to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those whom he determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks or those who harbored them. President George W. Bush signed the law on Sept. 18, 2001.
Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence committee, wants Congress to repeal the law by the end of 2014 – the time U.S. combat forces are expected to leave Afghanistan.
In March, Florida Rep. Trey Radel introduced a measure that would prohibit the president from using lethal military force against an American citizen located in the U.S.
Around the same time, Rep. Edward Markey introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2013, which prohibits many domestic uses of drones.
The topic was also on the mind of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who introduced legislation that would prohibit the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens living inside the country.
In May, Maine Sen. Angus King Jr., introduced the Targeted Strike Oversight Reform Act of 2013. The act would require an independent analysis of the consideration of the use of targeted lethal force against a particular U.S. person knowingly engaged in acts of international terrorism against the U.S.
Despite the congressional push to reign in the programs, there are some who maintain they are important to keep the country safe and must be kept in place.
Among the most outspoken has been South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham who told Fox News that he supported the mass collection of phone records collected by the NSA.
“I'm glad the NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to, overseas and inside the country,” Graham said.