Information Update - Fall 2005

The Patriot Act: Some Recent Developments

The USA Patriot Act continues to be a focus of debate as certain provisions of the Act are set to expire at the end of 2005. President George Bush campaigned in June for the extension of governmental powers of surveillance and law enforcement enabled by the Act. However, these enhanced powers have been sharply criticized by both liberals and conservatives who have seen them as being an abridgement of basic American freedoms. Particularly under attack has been the provision of the Patriot Act which allows the FBI to obtain a variety of personal records, including library transactions, about suspected terrorists with an order from a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In June the House of Representatives voted 238 to 187 to limit funds that could be used by the FBI to search library and bookstore records. This amendment to a larger bill passed when 38 Republicans broke rank and joined with Democrats and Representative Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont. Sanders has also reintroduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act. First introduced in 2004, this act would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to exempt bookstores and libraries from orders requiring the production of records for certain foreign intelligence investigations.

However, in July, following the bombings in London, the House voted to make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire. Two other provisions, including the one which allows the government to go to a secret court for permission to search a variety of personal records, including library records, were extended for 10 years. In the months ahead, the Senate will be considering its own reauthorization of the Act.

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the American Library Association surveyed 1500 public libraries and 4000 academic libraries to determine how often libraries have been contacted by law enforcement agencies since October 2001 when the Patriot Act was passed. During this time there have been 137 formal requests or demands for information and 66 informal inquiries made to the libraries surveyed. The study could not directly ask how or whether the Patriot Act has been used to search libraries since those who receive certain types of demands for records are prohibited from challenging the order or telling anyone that they have received such an order. However, one of the libraries was the Whatcom County system in rural northwest Washington. In June 2004 a library user noticed that a book entitled Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, had a handwritten note in the margin stating that “Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.” The FBI was informed by the patron, and agents went to the library to obtain names and information on who had checked out the book. The library’s lawyers turned down the request and fought a subsequent subpoena, after which the FBI withdrew its demand. (Eric Lichtblau, “Libraries Say Yes, Officials Do Quiz Them About Users,” The New York Times, 20 June 2004, p A11)

The only certainty is that more controversy, legislation, and violence in the months ahead will keep the debate on the balance between preparedness and civil liberties an ongoing issue for a very long time.


Kevin Norris

Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition