Reader Privacy Advocates Welcome News of Increased Patriot Act Oversight

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The Campaign for Reader Privacy (CRP) and other civil liberties advocates were heartened to learn last week that U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine has agreed to a request from Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to conduct a new investigation regarding how the government is using USA Patriot Act domestic surveillance powers. CRP has been fighting to restore privacy safeguards for bookstore and library records that were compromised under the Patriot Act.

Though Congress in March approved a temporary one-year extension (until February 2011) of the existing Patriot Act, CRP and others had been successful in securing the approval of a bill by the House Judiciary Committee that would have prohibited the use of Section 215 to search the records of a library patron or bookstore customer unless there are “specific and articulable facts” to show that the person is “a suspected agent of a foreign power” or is someone who is in contact with or known to the suspected agent. A bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would have provided enhanced protections for library patrons. Unfortunately, time ran out before Congress was able to complete the reauthorization process, leading to the one-year extension of the Patriot Act.

The Senate legislation, introduced by Leahy, included provisions calling for key oversight and civil liberties protections, and Leahy's request to Fine and Attorney General Eric Holder for an investigation has initiated a process that will review the use of Section 215 orders for business records from 2007 to 2009. Fine's letter to Leahy noted that the review will examine "how the FBI is using the tool today, and describe any reported improper or illegal uses of the authority." The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) will also review the use of National Security Letters (NSLs) between 2007 and 2009, and of the use of the new, automated system used "to generate and track NSLs that the FBI implemented to address the deficiencies identified" in earlier OIG reports.

“The Inspector General’s announcement that he intends to assess the FBI’s progress in responding to recommendations in prior reports and to take a close look at the use of Section 215 orders and NSLs between 2007 and 2009 is very good news, indeed,” said Tom Allen, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, in a prepared statement. “His findings will be extremely valuable in informing the debate over Patriot Act reauthorization when it resumes later this year.

“The pending USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act includes many important privacy and civil liberties protections,” said Leahy, in a prepared statement.  “While the Senate has not acted on this legislation, it is clear that the Attorney General and Inspector General Fine are committed to responding to congressional oversight requests about the use of these national security authorities. I appreciate Inspector General Fine’s responsiveness to this request, and I look forward to reviewing these reports when completed.”

The Campaign for Reader Privacy was organized in 2004 by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center. Its goal is to ensure that Americans can purchase and borrow books without fear that the government is reading over their shoulders.