Information Update - Fall 2004

The USA Patriot Act - A Follow Up

As many of us may recall, The USA Patriot Act was passed by Congress in October 2001 following the events of 9/11. Section 215 of the Act allowed federal authorities gathering foreign intelligence information or investigating international terrorism to obtain business records, including library use and library computer use records. Furthermore, libraries would not be allowed to disclose to the patron that his or her records had been investigated. The American Library Association, along with other civil liberties watchdog organizations such as the ACLU, have, of course, strenuously protested these provisions of the law. But how many library records have been actually investigated under the USA Patriot Act? The statistics are, if not necessarily contradictory, at least confusing. In October 2002 ALA's Freedom to Read Foundation joined three other groups in suing the Justice Department to obtain information about how the government has used its expanded surveillance powers granted by the Patriot Act. Surprisingly, it has been revealed that agents have never utilized Section 215 to investigate library records (ALA, "Ashcroft Says FBI Hasn &# 8217; Used Patriot Act Library Provision, Mocks ALA for ‘Hysteria'," 22 Sept. 2003, http://www.ala.org/ala/alonline/currentnews/newsarchive/2003/september2003/
ashcroftsays.htm
).
 
At first, this seems to contradict previous statements by the Justice Department. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Department had previously said that libraries had become a logical target of surveillance. In May 2003 Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh testified before member of Congress that federal agents had visited approximately 50 libraries. However, later the Department clarified this statement, saying that these visits were in connection with ordinary criminal cases, not national security cases. (United States. Cong. House. Committee on the Judiciary, 20 May, 2003, "Anti-Terrorism Investigations and the Fourth Amendment After September 11, 2001," http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/Judiciary/hju87238.000/hju87238_0.htm; United States. Dept. of Justice, "Statement of Barbara Comstock, Director of Public Affairs, on DOJ Testimony Regarding Libraries," 2 June 2003, http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2003/June/03_opa_323.htm)
 
Attorney General John Ashcroft, in his campaign to promote and possibly elucidate the Patriot Act, has taken direct aim at the "baseless hysteria" that he sees coming from ALA and other administration critics. He chided ALA for believing that "the FBI is not fighting terrorism. Instead, agents are checking how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel." (Beverly Goldberg and Gordon Flagg, "Ashcroft Mocks Librarians in Patriot Act Defense," American Libraries, Nov. 2003, pp.10-2)
 
ALA has been joined by others in its fight against Section 215. Along with ALA, the American Bookseller Association and the writers' group PEN American Center a announced a drive this past spring to collect a million signatures in support of several bills pending in Congress to amend the law. One bill sponsored by Vermont independent Bernard Sanders would exempt bookstores and libraries from Section 215. This bill, however, was defeated by a tie vote in the House in July after ten Republicans who had at first voted for the amendment switched their votes after Bush threatened a veto. Another bill, called the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act, filed in the Senate by Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho and cosponsored by Senator John Kerry would require the FBI to show "specific and articulable facts giving reason to believe that the person to whom the records pertain is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power." Meanwhile 253 cities and towns across the country have passed nonbinding resolutions expressing opposition to the Patriot Act. (David Mehegan, "Reading Over Your Shoulder: The Push Is On to Shelve Part of the Patriot Act," The Boston Globe, 9 March 2004, p E5) Ashcroft has, of course, sworn that if Congress passes such bills President Bush will veto them. ("Ashcroft Slams Anti-Patriot Act Bill, Threatens Bush Veto," American Libraries, March 2004, pp. 10-1)
 
Another legislative question is whether Congress will vote to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of 2005. President Bush stressed the need to renew these provisions in his last State of the Union Address.
 
Also, possibly in the works is the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, dubbed by some "Patriot Act II.& #8221; Although never officially released, the Center for Public Integrity obtained a draft, dated January 9, 2003, and made the text of the bill available online. Those interested in seeing this draft can go to the Center's website. (http://www.publicintegrity.org/docs/PatriotAct/story_01_020703_doc_1.pdf)
With the original USA Pat riot Act and the "Patriot Act II" creating such controversy not just among liberals but conservatives as well, the Bush administration has focused on passing new legislation upgrading the original Patriot Act in bits and pieces. The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, which covers obtaining records without a court order from financial institutions, was signed into law on Saturday, Dec ember 13, 2003, the weekend in which Saddam Hussein was captured. Other acts updating and strengthening the USA Patriot Act piecemeal are currently before Congress. (Julian Sanchez, "Patriot Spawn," Reason, April 2004, p. 8)
 
The only thing which is really clear is that we have not seen and heard the end of the controversy regarding the need to preserve our rights as Americans versus the need to fight and guard against terrorism. Obviously, though, if our rights are abridged in this fight, the very freedom we will be fighting for will have been damaged or destroyed. As always, we should keep ourselves informed as best as possible on world events, pending and existing legislation, and the business of our government and the other world governments involved in these situations.
 
 
Kevin Norris
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition