Campaign for Reader Privacy Seeks Changes to Expiring Patriot Act Provisions

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Work began in earnest this week on reauthorization of three provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which are set to expire at the end of this year. The Obama administration told lawmakers that it is in favor of renewal of the provisions, but is open to possible changes to the law to ensure the protection of Americans' civil liberties.

"We are encouraged that the reauthorization process has begun and that the administration is willing to hear our concerns about civil liberties and to take them into consideration," said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

Finan and other members of the Campaign for Reader Privacy were in Washington this week to drum up support from legislators for a bill that is expected to be introduced in the Senate on Thursday by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). The JUSTICE Act of 2009 (The Judiciously Using Surveillance Tools in Counterterrorism Efforts Act) seeks to reform the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and other surveillance laws to protect constitutional rights while still providing the government with the powers that it needs to fight terrorism.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich had told Democratic lawmakers that the administration would be "willing to consider" additional privacy safeguards as long as the provisions do not "undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities."

One of the Patriot Act provisions up for reauthorization is Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court requiring booksellers or librarians to turn over any records that are "relevant to" an investigation of international terrorism or foreign espionage, including the records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct. Section 215 orders prohibit booksellers or librarians from revealing that they have received a demand for records. Bookstores and libraries that provide the public with access to the Internet are also subject to National Security Letters.

The Durbin/Feingold bill would tighten standards for obtaining National Security Letters and require the government to show some "nexus to terrorism," rather than the current standard of showing "relevance" to a counterterrorism investigation, according to the Washington Post. And, among other changes, the bill would allow a judge to review the appropriateness of a gag order on the letters' recipients.

Members of the Campaign for Reader Privacy, including ABA and ABFFE, have endorsed the Feingold bill and will be encouraging their members to write their senators urging them to become a cosponsor as soon as the bill is assigned a number. --Rosemary Hawkins