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Patriot Act no threat to libraries

THE WORST thing about the USA Patriot Act is its Orwellian name. It is an acronym for ''Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Interrupt and Obstruct Terrorism" -- the kind of graceless handle that only Washington could come up with, and only by first picking the acronym and then straining to find words to fit it. Maybe if Congress had resisted the temptation to drape its big post-9/11 law in red, white, and blue, the Patriot Act's sensible antiterrorism measures wouldn't have become such hobgoblins. Sixteen of the law's provisions are set to expire this year. Its name, unfortunately, isn't one of them.

Section 215, on the other hand, is.

This is the provision of the Patriot Act that has been widely denounced for allowing investigators to obtain library records -- a provision so horrifying to the nation's librarians that the American Library Association launched a campaign against it. In repeated resolutions, the association blasted the Patriot Act as ''a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users." Many public libraries now make a point of warning their patrons that Big Brother may be looking over their shoulders. And the American Civil Liberties Union charges that Section 215 allows the FBI to ''spy on a person because they don't like the books she reads, or because they don't like the Web sites she visits."

All of which would be very disturbing, and reason enough to let Section 215 fall by the wayside, except for one thing: It's a crock.

Section 215 has nothing to do with libraries. It doesn't mention the word ''library." It simply authorizes the FBI to obtain ''tangible things" -- primarily business records or other documents -- in the course of an antiterrorism investigation. The FBI can do so only with a judge's prior approval, and the law specifies not once but twice that no US citizen may be investigated ''solely upon the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that in the three and a half years since the Patriot Act was enacted, Section 215 has been used 35 times -- but only to obtain driver's license, credit card, and telephone records, not library or bookstore reading lists. Deeply invested though some of the law's critics may be in the notion that the Bush administration lives to pry into the reading habits of law-abiding Americans, there is simply no evidence to back it up.

None of which is to say that investigators shouldn't be able to seek library records if they are needed to protect national security. Library records helped crack the case against the murderer of Gianni Versace in 1997 and against Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in 1996. It isn't inconceivable that they could be of use in breaking up a terrorist plot.

Gonzales told the Senate hearing that ''as recently as the winter and spring of 2004, a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with Al Qaeda used Internet service provided by a public library to communicate with his confederates." Shouldn't government investigators -- subject to appropriate judicial oversight -- be able to check those Internet records? It would be absurd to rewrite Section 215 to turn libraries into safe havens for terrorists, let alone to wipe out the provision altogether.

But that doesn't mean the law is perfect as is. The critics of the Patriot Act are by no means all cynics or zealots, and some of their suggested fixes are sound. Former congressman Bob Barr, for example, would change Section 215 so that authorities could not obtain private records or other ''tangible things" without at least showing the court specific grounds for suspecting a particular individual. Under the law as it stands now, the government has to show merely that the records being sought are relevant to an investigation -- a standard so low it is practically nonexistent.

As noted, Section 215 is only one of 16 Patriot Act provisions scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Congress will spend months debating which ones to keep, modify, or eliminate. The debate will likely result in a smarter, more careful law -- one that strikes a better balance between national security and civil liberty than the current statute, which was rushed through Congress just six weeks after 9/11. The Patriot Act doesn't need drastic surgery, but it can stand to be improved. For that reason, Congress was wise to build sunset provisions into the law in 2001. It would be wise to include them again when it renews the law this year.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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