If you’ve been following the hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, this week and last, regarding S. 1692, a law to extend the extraordinary, abusive spying powers of the Patriot Act, you may have noticed an odd little turn of amendments that just doesn’t seem to make sense. It has to do with libraries, and their efforts to obtain protections from the Patriot Act’s provisions that enable secret searches and seizures of information about what books Americans have been reading. In flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment, those searches and seizures are authorized without any judicial warrant that specifies and justifies particular information to be grabbed by the government.
The American Library Association has been up in arms for years about this authoritarian violation of American readers’ constitutional rights. So, last week, Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy appeared to give in, a little bit, to the librarians’ protests. He maneuvered the committee’s support for an amendment to provide some protections for library records from Section 215 searches, which grant the FBI the ability to seize information databases from places like libraries, stores, hospitals, and so on.
The odd thing is that Leahy and his coalition allowed this new protection although they denied protections in other areas. Why, if they recognized the abuses of Patriot Act powers against libraries, would they protect libraries, but not other organizations?
Today, we got an answer to this conundrum from Senator Dick Durbin, who explained, “While this bill includes a 3-part standard for library records obtained by Section 215 orders, at least at this moment, there is no similar protection for library records obtained by National Security Letters. This double standard is especially puzzling, because the Justice Department testified to this committee last month that a Section 215 order had never been used to obtain library records. In contrast, National Security Letters have been used to obtain library records of innocent Americans. This bill contains no protections against this abuse.”
Read that section again if you didn’t catch the loophole the first time.
Yes, Senator Leahy allowed an amendment that protects libraries against abusive, unconstitutional Section 215 searches and seizures, but that’s functionally irrelevant. Senator Leahy and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee all know that the government prefers not to spy on people’s private library records using Section 215 powers anyway.
The government prefers to use a separate Patriot Act power – the dreaded National Security Letter -to spy on what we books we check out of the library. Wouldn’t you know it, Leahy and company have declined to provide comparable protections for libraries from spying by National Security Letters.
Where Patrick Leahy, the committee Republicans and the collaborating Democrats, could make make a meaningless pose of expanded protections for libraries, they did. Where they could have made an actual contribution to protections for libraries from National Security Letters, they did nothing.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is treating us Americans as if we’re idiots, playing a crude game of misdirection to make us think that they’re taking at least a little action to restrain excessive government spying powers, when in fact, those restraints have almost no effect. Let’s hope that, if Americans in general are too slow on the uptake to notice the difference, the librarians of our nation live up to their reputation, and carefully read about the non-reform of the Patriot Act that Senator Patrick Leahy and his unscrupulous followers have been cobbling together in Washington D.C.