Magazine article Information Today

The PATRIOT Act Is Back

Magazine article Information Today

The PATRIOT Act Is Back

Article excerpt

Some people may think the USA PATRIOT Act has fallen off the information industry's radar screen. The down-to-earth realities of the economic crisis (budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs, bankruptcies) along with the installation of the Obama administration have basically pushed concerns about the PATRIOT Act and its implications aside. The last significant round of congressional debate about the PATRIOT Act was over the fall and winter of 2005-2006, and several provisions that were due to expire were renewed.

But it's back. Some of the PATRIOT Act's provisions that were renewed in 2006 are now set to expire at the end of 2009, including the controversial Section 215 provisions addressing library and other records. A recent flurry of activity in Congress has brought these issues back on the radar screen as efforts to renew the expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act, as well as engage in a comprehensive review of our nation's security and surveillance laws, are underway.

The USA PATRIOT Act, when it was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was seen by the Bush administration and the act's proponents as providing necessary tools to fight terrorism and prevent a repetition of 9/11. Its critics raised concerns that the act was trampling on civil rights and liberties of U.S. citizens.

The Controversy Surrounding Section 215

Among the more controversial proposals was Section 215 of the act, addressing the seizure of business records. According to this section, a warrant obtained during a secret proceeding could be obtained for any tangible business records needed in an intelligence-gathering investigation. This broad language raised the specter of searches for library and bookseller records, database search records, and other personal records.

Controversy also arose around provisions that made it easier for federal investigators to obtain National Security Letters (NSLs). An NSL can be issued by the FBI even without the secret judicial oversight of a Section 215 warrant, and it can be used to obtain telecommunications and financial records. The recipient of an NSL must keep the NSL a secret and cannot disclose any information about it, including the fact that he or she has received one. A library consortium reportedly received at least one NSL seeking records about patron internet use.

Sunset Clauses

Because of the speed in which the USA PATRIOT Act was drafted and passed, many of its provisions were to expire, or "sunset," at the end of 2005. At that time, much of the debate over renewing the Section 215 and NSL provisions of the act focused on whether these provisions were effective tools for fighting terrorism or whether they were invading civil liberties.

Addressing the latter question, John Ashcroft, then-U.S. attorney general, said federal officials had neither the time nor the inclination to "monitor the reading habits of Americans. No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care." He defended the PATRIOT Act and claimed that it was effective in fighting terrorism. However, an investigation by the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General did find a number of abuses and misuses of the act, although not necessarily arising from library and bookseller searches.

Increased Oversight and New Protections

Changes made during the 2005 renewal debate increased congressional oversight and added new protections when Section 215 warrants were issued for library and bookstore records. …

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