Thursday, September 18, 2003

The Justice Department’s claim that the Patriot Act has never been used to search public library records came as a surprise to the American Library Association, which says it runs contrary to previous reports.

“After all of the allegations and all of the conversations with officials of the Justice Department that led us to believe there was a high level of activity, we wonder what this really means,” said Emily Sheketoff, the association’s executive director.

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday declassified information surrounding that provision of the act that allows agents armed with court orders to review “books, records, papers, documents, and other items.”

The release of the information was in response to mounting criticism that federal agents were abusing the law and invading readers’ privacy. According to the documents, the department said the Patriot Act has been used “zero” times for investigative purposes.

Former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh told the House Judiciary Committee in May that libraries had been contacted approximately 50 times in 2002 using the Patriot Act. Mr. Dinh, the chief architect of the Patriot Act, resigned one week before that testimony and put the number of libraries contacted at “fewer than 50.”

The Library Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a poll last year of more than 1,500 libraries. Sixty libraries said that federal agents had requested information on patrons under the Patriot Act, and nearly 15 percent of the librarians said they turned the information over without demanding a court order.

“We are as patriotic as any profession and we have worked very successful with law enforcement when they have appropriate investigations,” Ms. Sheketoff said.

Which begs the question, she said, if the act has been used “zero” times as the Justice Department says, then government doesn’t need this extra-intrusive law, they should amend the act so that library patron’s privacy is protected,” Ms. Sheketoff said.

The federal government was shut down yesterday due to Hurricane Isabel and a Justice Department official could not be reached for comment. But, in a memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Mr. Ashcroft said the information was declassified “to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation.”

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman, said in a statement yesterday the classified information has been the “source of much speculation.”

“I hope this disclosure will help refocus the public debate on the facts about the USA Patriot Act and the larger war on terrorism. For too long, inflamed rhetoric, erroneous conspiracy theories, and misinformation has characterized much of the discussion” about the law, Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

Historically, librarians have cooperated with criminal investigations including such high profile cases as the Unabomber and New York’s Zodiac killer. However, during the McCarthy-era of the 1950s and a program in the 1970s called “Library Awareness,” agents sought information from libraries on patrons’ reading habits until protests from librarians.

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