Rep. Sensenbrenner Wants Answers from Ashcroft on Patriot Act

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After refusing a Congressional demand to reveal, among other things, how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued under the USA Patriot Act to bookstores, libraries, and newspapers, Attorney General John Ashcroft might find himself served with a subpoena. That, at least, was a threat levied by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisconsin), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, who wants answers from the Justice Department and the FBI as to how it has used its much-expanded investigative powers under the Act, according to the Journal Sentinel.

On Monday, August 19, Sensenbrenner said he would "start blowing a fuse" if the Justice Department did not provide by Labor Day the answer to 50 questions concerning the Patriot Act that were sent by the House Judiciary Committee to the Justice Department in mid-June, as reported by the Journal Sentinel. Sensenbrenner told the Sentinel that, if he still didn't have answers by then, "he may take the unusual step of issuing a subpoena to Ashcroft to force him to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which Sensenbrenner heads," the article stated. The Justice Department missed two earlier deadlines for answering the Committee's 50 questions on the Patriot Act, and, in late July, submitted a partial answer to the questions.

Book groups were happy with Sensenbrenner's stand. Said Judy Platt, director of publicity for the Association of American Publishers (AAP), "We are really gratified by the chairman's reaction. The book community is going to do its part to keep the pressure on, so that the proper Congressional oversight can be exercised."

"We are behind [Sensenbrenner] 100 percent in his efforts to get the Justice Department to release this information publicly," said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).

Sensenbrenner's outbursts Monday are the culmination of the Judiciary Committee's effort, since mid-June, to get answers from the Justice Department regarding the Patriot Act. That was when Sensenbrenner, along with Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan), the Committee's ranking Democrat, first sent the Justice Department a letter asking the Department and the FBI to explain how it has used its broader investigative powers under the Patriot Act. Among the 50 questions posed in the letter, Sensenbrenner and Conyers asked whether Section 215 of the Patriot Act had been used to obtain records from a public library, bookstore, or newspaper.

Under Section 215, a federal investigator can obtain a search warrant for bookstore purchase records without an adversarial hearing or the need to show probable cause. Moreover, the warrant is issued under a gag order that denies the party subject to the order the right to reveal the fact that such a warrant has been received.

In a letter dated July 26, Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant replied that a number of the Committee's questions had "classified answers," including how many libraries and bookstores had been compelled under Section 215 to turn over records to federal investigators. As such, these classified answers would be "provided to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence through the appropriate channels," rather than to the Judiciary Committee. However, the Intelligence Committee has no oversight authority over the Patriot Act.

After the contents of the Justice Department's letter were made public by the New York Times on August 14, both ABFFE and AAP, along with the PEN American Center, hand-delivered on August 19 a letter to Sensenbrenner and Conyers, in which they expressed their support of the Committee's effort, as well as their disappointment and concern over the Justice Department's response.

"Specifically, our concerns have focused on Section 215," the groups state in the letter, "which … threatens the privacy and First Amendment rights of library patrons and bookstore customers. The secrecy surrounding the issuance of search warrants pursuant to Section 215 and the lack of any adversarial proceeding … are an open invitation to abuse of governmental power in the absence of proper oversight."

Moreover, when the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, "members of Congress justified [the expanded investigative powers] by stressing that there would be Congressional oversight," AAP's Platt told BTW. "The arrogance that [the Justice Department feels] they're not accountable -- if you're given expanded powers to spy on Americans, there has got to be some checks and balances. Subpoenas [to bookstores and libraries] are issued under a gag order so you can't even tell anyone."

And while, in the wake of September 11, law enforcement officials stressed the necessity to be able to "move quietly, a lot of people are not convinced that they will work in the interest of civil liberties without any oversight," Platt said. --David Grogan