Edward Nawotka writes today in the PW Daily Newsletter:
- A group led by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers and the PEN American Center has sent a letter of support to House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), the Committee’s ranking Democrat, protesting the Justice Department’s refusal to reveal how many times it has taken information from bookstores and libraries under the Patriot Act, passed last October as an amendment to the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
In June, the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department asking 50 questions about the use of the Act. On July 26, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant replied in a letter that the requested information was confidential and would be turned over only to the House Intelligence Committee. The House Judiciary Committee has legal responsibility for overseeing the Patriot Act while the House Intelligence Committee does not.
….The issue is of particular interest to booksellers. Section 215 of the Patriot Act grants the FBI the ability to demand that any person or business immediately turn over records of books purchased or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement with “international terrorism” or “clandestine activities.” The act includes a “gag order,” preventing a bookstore or library from discussing of the matter with anyone or announcing the matter to the press. A bookstore may phone its attorney at the time of the request, but it can be done only as an afterthought, as the information must be supplied to the FBI immediately, or the employee risks arrest.
….Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, told PW Daily, “We’re all in the dark here because of the gag provision as to how many subpoenas or court orders have been issued. No one will tell you if there’s a few or a thousand that have been issued. It’s likely to scare people to hear that the Justice Department is fighting not to reveal the number.” He added, “We’re not asking for details, we just want to know a number.”
The FBI can walk into any bookstore or library with a search warrant, demand sales or lending records for anyone suspected of “international terrorism” or “clandestine activities.” The employee has no recourse but to turn the records over, then cannot discuss this activity with anyone other than his/her attorney. The House Judiciary Committee and representatives of booksellers want to know how many times this has happened. I’m not sure that the booksellers have any right other than courtesy to the information, but surely the House Judiciary Committee, with legal responsibility for overseeing the Patriot Act, does.
Again we see a near-paranoid aversion to divulging any information to anyone from John Ashcroft’s Justice Department – a condition that only leads others to a similar state of paranoia in others, with or without cause. Why give so-inclined people the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild? When people perceive a pattern of unwarranted secrecy, they suspect the worst. Ashcroft’s Justice has handled this general problem very poorly in both word and deed.
- the book groups said that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment and urged the Committee to pursue its efforts to ensure that the Justice Department does not abuse its new power. “The secrecy surrounding the issuance of search warrants pursuant to Section 215 and the lack of any adversarial proceeding…are an open invitation to abuse of governmental power in the absence of proper oversight,” they said.
Whether this is happening or not, the perception is there that it may be.
- Judith Platt, who directs the Association of American Publishers’ Freedom to Read Program, stressed that “an individual’s right to read without the government looking over his shoulder is the most basic right in a free society. If we allow this freedom to be abridged in the interest of law enforcement, we have a right to demand the most stringent standards of judicial and Congressional oversight.”
In an interview Monday with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rep. Sensenbrenner, a Republican,
- said he would “start blowing a fuse” unless Ashcroft’s Justice Department gives answers by Labor Day week to 50 written questions about the act raised by the House Judiciary Committee in June.
If the committee still doesn’t have the answers by then, Sensenbrenner said, he may take the unusual step of issuing a subpoena to Ashcroft to force him to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which Sensenbrenner heads. He noted that the department already has missed two deadlines issued earlier by Congress for answering the questions.
….The subpoena threat isn’t the only weapon Sensenbrenner is wielding.
Sensenbrenner said he told Ashcroft during a summer social event: “Look, there’s a sunset in the Patriot Act. If you want to play ‘I’ve got a secret,’ good luck getting the Patriot Act extended. Because if you’ve got a bipartisan anger in the Congress, the sunset will come and go and the Patriot Act disappears.”
The act automatically expires in late 2005 unless Congress votes to extend it.
Giving Sensenbrenner’s position on the Patriot Act data some perspective is his position on a related matter:
- he said he doesn’t favor blanket release of the names of the foreign detainees arrested since the act went into effect. A judge should make the decision on a case-by-case basis with the burden on the government to prove secrecy was necessary, Sensenbrenner said.
The issue is pending before a federal appeals court.
Isn’t this a man with whom Ashcroft should be trying to work?