Read a good book lately? Federal agents might want to know.
Buried in the 340 pages of fine print that is the USA Patriot Act is Section 215. That provision allows FBI agents to demand from any bookstore or public library its records of the books or tapes a customer has bought or borrowed. The repugnant assumption underlying Section 215 is that we are what we read, that someone who buys a biography of Osama bin Laden may in fact support Bin Laden -- or even act on his behalf.
Congress drafted Section 215 carelessly, in the turmoil and grief following the Sept. 11 attacks. Allowing G-men to, in essence, play their hunches about who might be a terrorist or a terrorist supporter based on the books or movies he or she reads or watches was a perilous idea to begin with and could choke free debate on unpopular ideas.
In the 18 months since the Patriot Act became law, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has resisted even the minimal safeguards Congress imposed on his department to justify this invasion of civil liberty. He insists that all information about Section 215 is classified, even aggregate statistics about how many times it has been used.
This week, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to introduce a bill repealing Section 215. His proposed Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003 responds to alarmed booksellers and librarians who, like Michael Katzenberg, owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., are purging records of their patrons. That way, if FBI agents come knocking, there will be nothing to show them.
The problem is less that federal investigators can see what someone has bought at Borders or checked out from the Los Feliz branch library -- they could do that before the Patriot Act passed -- than how much easier it is now.
Sure, agents still have to wave a court order at the store owner or librarian. But that order is now issued by a secret court, created in 1978 to rule on requests for national security-related wiretaps or searches.
To obtain a search warrant previously, government lawyers had to have "probable cause" to suspect an individual was engaged in criminal activity. Under Section 215, they need only convince the court that searching Blockbuster's rental records is "relevant" to an ongoing investigation. The government does not have to suspect that an individual has committed a crime, much less a terrorist act. The law bars booksellers and librarians from disclosing to anyone -- their customers or Congress -- that investigators came knocking.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, most people understood that the balance between freedom and security would shift. With Section 215 it shifted too far. Sanders' bill would not eliminate investigators' right to see library and other records, just return it to an older, higher standard.