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What you read could be used against you

Beware of the books you purchase or read. They could lead to a secret federal investigation of your personal habits and life. They could even lead to a secret break-in of your domicile while you are away from home -- and Big Brother would never have to tell you he snooped.

These growing fears, among others, recently led librarians in the Santa Cruz, Calif., public libraries to post signs on library walls and bulletin boards, warning patrons that records of the books they borrow might end up in the hands of federal agents. These warnings, also posted on the library system’s Web site (www.santacruzpl.org), note that the USA PATRIOT Act “prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you.”

Condemning these intrusions by government snoops, the Santa Cruz Library Joint Powers Authority has passed a resolution opposing “any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry.”

Meanwhile, these California librarians have joined others around the nation who, along with civil libertarians, believe that a number of relatively obscure provisions of the 340-page PATRIOT Act, passed through Congress and hastily signed into law six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are ill-advised and unconstitutional.

Several of the act’s sections drawing recent attention and concern are these:

  • Section 213 states that the government can enter and search your home without ever informing you. The government can, of course, search when you are at home as well.
  • Section 215 states that the government can demand public libraries to hand over information on patrons’ reading habits without ever informing them.
  • Section 218 states that the government can carry out secret searches and covert wiretaps without showing probable cause. They must merely “certify” -- not prove -- that the wiretaps serve a “significant” foreign intelligence purpose.

While each of these threatens privacy in new and alarming ways, the clauses in Section 215 seem to be gathering the widest public interest in recent weeks. This section specifically allows FBI agents to obtain a warrant from a secret federal court for library or bookstore records of anyone connected to an investigation of international terrorism or spying. Unlike conventional search warrants, there is no need for agents to show that the target is suspected of a crime or possesses evidence of a crime. The code then prohibits libraries and bookstore owners or employees from telling their patrons, or anyone else, that the FBI has sought the records.

Of course the false assumption underlying Section 215 is that we are what we read, that someone who buys a biography of, say, Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, might in fact support bin Laden or Hussein -- or even act on their behalf.

In the 18 months since the PATRIOT Act became law, the Bush administration has steadfastly resisted even the minimal safeguards Congress imposed on the justice department to justify this invasion of civil liberties. Attorney General John Ashcroft insists that all information about Section 215 is classified, even aggregate statistics about how many times it has been used.

Ashcroft’s penchant for secrecy is slowly arousing some in Congress. Earlier this month Congressmen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, introduced a bill calling for the repeal of Section 215. They proposed the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003, which responds to a growing number of alarmed booksellers and librarians, some of whom are now reportedly purging records of their patrons. That way, if FBI agents come knocking, there will be nothing to show them.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, most Americans understood that the balance between freedom and security would shift. With sections such as 213, 215 and 218 buried in the PATRIOT Act, this shift has clearly gone too far. The Sanders and Paul bill represents one step to move things in the other direction. The United States Bill of Rights after all, celebrates “liberty and justice for all.”

Liberty, once lost, is not easily regained.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003