Thursday, June 16, 2005

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES voted to repeal the sections of the Patriot Act that allow the U.S. government to spy on Americans' reading habits in bookstores and libraries without a search warrant. Hallelujah!

Naturally, the forces of evil who are intent on shredding the First Amendment lost no time in doing the 21st century version of red-baiting: accusing lawmakers of "carving out safe havens for terrorists and spies, who have, in fact, used public libraries to do research and communicate with their co-conspirators."

What nonsense. First of all, Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella's statement is contradicted by the letter sent to Congress this week by his own Justice Department, which said that "the provision has been used only 35 times and has never been used to obtain bookstore, library, medical or gun-sale records. It has been used to obtain records of hotel stays, driver's licenses, apartment leases and credit cards."

If it's true that the provision has never been used against libraries or bookstores, it cannot also be true that "terrorists and spies...have, in fact, used public libraries to do research and communicate with their co-conspirators" -- unless the Justice Department is admitting incompetence.

And second, the authority to obtain customer records from libraries and bookstores has not been taken away, despite Justice's hysterical claims to the contrary. All this means is that, if this repeal stands, government agents would have to get search warrants from a judge or subpoenas from a grand jury before they could seize anyone's records. Right now, the government can do this with an order from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; FISA courts operate in secrecy.

There is no reason in the world that anyone in the Bush administration should object to such a requirement -- unless they want to have the power to spy on anyone at will with no accountability.

Supporters of rolling back the library and bookstore provision said that the law gives the FBI too much leeway to go on fishing expeditions on people's reading habits and that innocent people could get tagged as potential terrorists based on what they check out from a library.

"If the government suspects someone is looking up how to make atom bombs, go to a court and get a search warrant," said Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Right, Jerold. After all, that's the American way.

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