The USA Patriot Act was signed into law exactly 20 years ago, on October 26, 2001. While the law was profoundly shaped by the back-to-back events of the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, it was deeply rooted in in fears about bioterrorism that had been growing since the 1990s. This anniversary provides a moment to reflect upon the Patriot Act’s legacy, as well as to imagine and plan for different biosecurity futures.
The overall intent of the USA Patriot Act (formally known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) was clear: to prevent terrorism by raising the “barrier to entry” for potential terrorists. At its core, the act responded to two kinds of perceived threats—from outsiders and from insiders—and this dichotomy continues to have repercussions today. Within the realm of biosecurity, the legislation sought to make it harder for states, terrorists, extremist groups, and lone-wolf actors to acquire dangerous biological materials, while also protecting biological research facilities from insider threats such as disgruntled employees and people with a grudge against biological research.