State Associations Join Call for End to Patriot Act’s Library Provision

December 9, 2009

As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of three provisions of the USA Patriot Act approached, more than 30 state library associations had passed resolutions calling for Congress to allow Section 215, which permits the Justice Department to conduct searches of library and bookstore records, to expire.

Many state library associations also voiced opposition to Section 505, which gives the FBI authority to secretly issue national security letters to obtain records from libraries and other internet service providers without prior judicial oversight, as happened in 2005 to four people associated with Connecticut's statewide consortium the Library Connection.

The American Library Association has long been critical of the Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed six weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the Association’s 2009 Annual Conference, ALA Council approved a resolution (PDF file) calling for Congress to allow Section 215 to sunset.

Two other Patriot Act provisions are also set to expire December 31; one permits “roving wiretaps” where the government conducts surveillance on suspects who communicate on multiple devices; the other, known as the “lone wolf” provision, allows the government to spy on non-American suspects even if they are not connected to terrorist groups. Bills reauthorizing the provisions have been approved by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Both versions contain modifications to the measures, and they will have to be reconciled before final passage.

Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA's Washington Office, predicted that the provisions would be reauthorized, if only temporarily. Noting that the effort to pass health care reform is putting everything else on hold, she told American Libraries in early December that she expected Congress would pass “a modest extension of the three provisions that are set to expire,” perhaps for 30 to 60 days.

However, Bradley saw little chance that the provisions would not be renewed for a more extended period, since no member of Congress wants to be seen as failing to act on terrorism. “Many of us would like to see Section 215 go away,” she observed, “but it’s not going away.”

Bradley added that the biggest obstacle to reforming the Patriot Act “was that the White House went along with the FBI and Justice Department,” which are calling for reauthorization of the provisions with no changes. “There were some modest changes that could have been made,” she said, but the Obama administration did not call for reform.

Even if the library community does not prevail in its effort against Section 215, said Bradley, librarians “really needs to say thanks to those who supported us.” She singled out Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Ron Wyden (D -OR) and added that many in the House fought for reform as well.