Let Some Provisions in USA Patriot Act Expire

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The following is an editorial that appeared in Macon, Georgia's Macon Telegraph on Monday, March 21.

A legislative and grassroots effort is underway to amend a portion of the Patriot Act that allows unchecked government access to citizens' private records, just as the Bush administration is calling for reauthorization of the entire act.

Section 215 is one of about a dozen USA Patriot Act provisions set to expire this year under a sunset provision built in when the sweeping anti-terrorism act was hastily passed the month after 9/11/2001. Organizations such as the American Library Association have joined with cities, senators, and citizens in seeking to eliminate from Section 215 the unwarranted access and searches of library and bookstore records that the section authorizes.

This year's bill is called the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), first introduced in Congress by an Independent from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Although bookstores and libraries are not specifically mentioned in the Patriot Act, the broad-sweep wording allows the FBI nearly carte blanche permission to access "any tangible record," which would include book purchases and checkouts, simply by telling the secret Foreign Information Surveillance Court that it wants to see the material in connection with a terrorism-related investigation. No probable cause reason is required, and there is no possibility of appeal or independent court review of the FISC orders.

Section 215 also prohibits owners of those records -- i.e., librarians and bookstore owners who have to provide access -- from disclosing the record release to anyone.

Sanders reasoning for the bill is compelling. "Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the person whose records are being searched by the FBI can be anyone. The FBI doesn't even have to say that it believes the person is involved in criminal activity or that the person is connected to a foreign power. This is not acceptable. The legislation we are introducing today will go a long way in protecting the basic freedoms of every American."

Law enforcement officials will still be able to subpoena bookstore and library records (or any other "tangible" record) under the normal process whereby the federal courts review these requests and determine if probable cause is there for the search and seizure.

The powers granted under the act now are simply too broad and there is no backstop for potential abuse. Innocent Americans -- anyone with a foreign sounding name, with reading interests on guns, who write critical letters to the editor or to government agencies -- should not have to worry about repercussions from unwarranted searches of personal information.

And the key word is "unwarranted."

Although the Department of Justice is required by the law to report the number of times the act has been used each year for such searches -- which could provide valuable assessment of its use or abuse -- the DOJ also has won the right to keep those specifics secret under a national security exemption of the Freedom of Information Act. How ironic.

Congress needs to carefully examine changes in the law, or this provision, along with several others, should be allowed to expire.

(c) 2005 Macon Telegraph. Reprinted with permission. www.MaconTelegraph.com.