- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft will try to ease the “hysteria” surrounding the Patriot Act by declassifying the number of times the FBI has used a section of the law to review library and business records.

The Washington Times learned late last night that Mr. Ashcroft today will announce that the provision has never been used for “businesses.” The memo made no mention of libraries.

In a memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Mr. Ashcroft said he planned to declassify the information because of declining public confidence and “to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation.”

“I know you share my concern that the public not be misled regarding the manner in which the U.S. Department of Justice, and the FBI in particular, have been utilizing the authorities provided in the USA Patriot Act. Public confidence in law enforcement is of paramount importance. That is why I have taken this action despite the fact that it is generally not in the interest of the United States to disclose information of this nature,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

Mr. Ashcroft used the word “hysteria” in a speech earlier this week to describe public reaction to Section 215 of the law authorizing search warrants for “books, records, papers, documents, and other items.”

“The hysteria is ridiculous. Our job is not,” Mr. Ashcroft told the American Restaurant Association conference Monday.

The public has been led to believe that FBI agents “dressed in raincoats, dark suits and glasses” are surrounding libraries to “stop everyone and interrogate everyone,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

Mr. Ashcroft delivered the news in a phone call yesterday to the head of the American Library Association, which said that releasing the numbers and changing the law would ease fears that Big Brother was reading over America’s shoulders.

Critics of the law say the move is just the first step in addressing numerous problems with the Patriot Act.

“If they think this one disclosure will end the controversy, they just don’t understand what is going on in this country,” said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Questions remain about how the act is being used to snoop through medical, financial and travel records, he said.

“People are genuinely concerned about the Patriot Act. I just don’t think it is hysteria; I think there are legitimate, deeply held, bipartisan concerns,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office, said the office doesn’t know how many libraries have been targeted because the court orders for information contain gag orders prohibiting librarians from revealing what records are being examined.

She also scoffed at the notion that the public is reacting to the law with “hysteria.”

Congress enacted the Patriot Act after the September 11 terrorist attacks to broaden investigative powers. The act has been criticized by federal, state and local lawmakers, and has been the subject of lawsuits by civil liberties advocates.

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