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Groups Launch New Effort to Amend Patriot Act

April 9, 2009

Washington, DC, April 7, 2009 – Organizations representing booksellers, librarians, publishers, and writers today launched the latest phase in their five-year campaign to restore the reader privacy safeguards that were stripped away by the USA Patriot Act. Since 2003, the Department of Justice has used its expanded power under the Patriot Act to issue more than 200 secret search orders under Section 215 and more than 190,000 National Security Letters (NSLs). Despite several efforts to reform the Patriot Act, the FBI can still search any records it believes are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation, including the records of people who are not suspected of criminal conduct.

Because Patriot Act orders bar recipients from revealing their existence, it is impossible to know how many have been served on bookstores and libraries. However, in a memo to Congress released today, the Campaign for Reader Privacy observed that there have been at least three significant and disturbing attempts to obtain records from libraries since 2003. In 2004, the FBI issued a subpoena to a library in rural Washington State demanding a list of patrons who had checked out a biography of Osama bin Laden. It sent NSLs to libraries seeking Internet records for two people in 2005 and 2007. All three of the orders were withdrawn after they were challenged by librarians.

The broad authority granted to the FBI by the Patriot Act represents a serious threat to intellectual freedom. An essential part of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech is the freedom to explore ideas and seek information without fear of government scrutiny. But the Patriot Act weakened the confidentiality protections for these records and raised fears that the FBI could circumvent constitutional checks on searches.

This danger has been confirmed by the Inspector General of the Justice Department. In a 2008 report to Congress, the Inspector General said that in one case the FBI had done an end-run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court after the court had denied approval for a search that threatened the First Amendment rights of the target. Twice refused a Section 215 order by the court, the FBI used its authority to issue an NSL without court approval for the same information, an action that was criticized by the Inspector General.

Section 215, which has already been extended once, is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. However, Republicans in the House of Representative have introduced legislation extending it and two other Patriot Act provisions for another 10 years. FBI Director Robert Mueller recently called on Congress to extend the three expiring provisions.

The Campaign for Reader Privacy does not oppose the extension of Section 215, per se, but seeks to exempt bookstore and library records from its provisions. Without Section 215, the government would be required to seek a grand jury subpoena for such records.

The Campaign also supports legislation that would restrict the use of Section 215 orders and NSLs to searches targeting suspected terrorists or people who are known to them. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) introduced this legislation in the previous Congress. Nadler reintroduced the National Security Letters Reform Act (H.R. 1800) on March 31, and Feingold is expected to introduce a bill later.

>> Read The Campaign's Congressional memo, "Restoring the Safeguards for Reader Privacy"

For more information contact:
Oren Teicher (ABA)
Campaign for Reader Privacy
Phone: 800-637-0037 x6611

Lynne Bradley (ALA)
Campaign for Reader Privacy
Phone: 800-941-8478

Judith Platt (AAP)
Campaign for Reader Privacy
Phone: 202-220-4551

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