A sign posted at 10 public libraries in Santa Cruz, California, warns patrons that the government may be watching what they read:
Warning: Although the Santa Cruz
Library makes every effort to protect
your privacy, under the federal USA
PATRIOT ACT (Public Law 10756),
records of the books and other
materials you borrow from this
library may be obtained by federal
agents. That federal law prohibits
library workers from informing you
if federal agents have obtained
records about you. Questions about
policy should be directed to Attorney
General John Ashcroft, Department
of Justice, Washington D.C. 20530.
The United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001 allows Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents to obtain warrants allowing access to the library or bookstore records of anyone connected to an international terrorism or spying investigation.
In Santa Cruz and around the world, many are questioning whether the legislation, which rushed through Congress in the wake of September 11, 2001, is a powerful tool in the war against terrorism or an assault on Americans' most basic rights.
The first major legislative initiative passed by Congress since the horrific 9/11 attacks, President Bush signed H.R. 3162 into law on October 26, 2001. After more than six weeks of discussions and negotiations, members of Congress and the Bush administration reached agreement on the legislation that granted broad new powers to domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies to use wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping, searches, and a wide range of other information-gathering techniques to investigate and prosecute domestic acts of terrorism.
Because the legislation also eliminated many checks and balances that courts previously used to ensure that such powers were not abused, critics say its passage dealt a large blow to Americans' civil liberties. The PATRIOT Act raises a valid question: whether the government's need for information outweighs an individual's right to privacy. And, as the administration seeks legislation that will expand the first act's broad intelligence and surveillance powers, this question must be answered.
PATRIOT II on the Horizon
For months, the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General John Ashcroft have been drafting the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. Justice Department officials have repeatedly denied the existence of the draft legislation, dubbed the PATRIOT Act II, but a "confidential--not for distribution" copy recently appeared on the Web site of the Center for Public Integrity (www.publicintegrity.org), a non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization.
Soon after the leak, House Judiciary Committee Democrats called on Ashcroft to explain the draft legislation. He has said publicly that no decisions have been made on final proposals for the PATRIOT Act's expansion. The Justice Department declined to comment on the posted draft but did not dispute its authenticity. Currently, the Office of Legal Policy is developing the draft.
Detentions, Databases, and Decreased Civil Liberties
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the new legislation would give the U.S. attorney general and the federal government sweeping domestic intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and law enforcement powers, while simultaneously decreasing judicial review and public access to information. Some privacy advocates are concerned about the proposal's effect on detention of non-citizens, telephone and Internet surveillance, secret searches and seizures, access to financial and personal information, targeting of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrant communities, large-scale investigations of U.S. citizens for "intelligence" purposes, and the designation of certain activist groups as "domestic terrorists. …