Civil Liberties

While You Were Out Reading

New proof of federal agents snooping in local libraries underscores how little we know about the investigations and arrests being done in the name of "security."
In a report released on Monday to widespread mainstream media silence, the American Library Association reported that domestic law enforcement authorities have instigated more than 200 requests for information from libraries since October 2001, the month the Patriot Act was hurriedly passed and signed into law.

While this should be a cause for concern for any citizen, it comes with a sad addendum: It would appear that the ALA doesn't trust the government enough to house its findings on a computer server anywhere in the United States. The ALA, in surveying U.S. libraries for a report on the impact of the USA Patriot Act, housed its data on a computer server in Canada, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. This comes on the heels of a vote in the House of Representatives last week - by a 238 to 187 margin - to roll back the FBI's power to seize library and bookstore records.

The New York Times, which picked up on the story on Tuesday, reported that the study fails to clarify just how authorities have used the Patriot Act in libraries, as its secrecy provisions "could make it a crime for a librarian to respond. Federal intelligence law bans those who receive certain types of demands for records from challenging the order or telling anyone they have received it."

But it's not only libraries that are feeling the heat of increased government snooping into the private habits of citizens. The government said Wednesday that after the Sept. 11 attacks it shared Social Security information with law enforcement officials looking for terrorism suspects and trying to identify victims. The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration plans to disclose in the Federal Register that the agency has collected personal data about airline travelers. This took place in spite of a congressional ban and the agency's promise not to do so. The administration, apparently, considers itself to be outside of laws passed by Congress and unbound by its own promises.

All this activity comes as 16 provisions of the Patriot Act are coming up for new votes in Congress. Members would do well to act in a more thoughtful, considered manner than last time, in the panicked aftermath of 9/11. A new report from The Century Foundation, Rethinking the Patriot Act: Keeping America Safe and Free, can provide just the context and evenhanded information required. The report's author maintains that the Act "remains gravely flawed. It gives almost no weight to the hidden costs of a powerfully expanded intelligence-gathering capability. It fails to draw reasonable boundaries; as a result, it permits unnecessary intrusions on privacy and dangerous incursions on First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, and religion."

Nowhere have I been able to locate any serious discussion of the issues raised by The Century Foundation report, despite the fact that it offers one of the most wide-ranging independent examinations of a law that offers the government unprecedented domestic police and intelligence powers. This is unfortunate because while no one would argue that reporters have ignored the effects of the act in the three-plus years since it was passed, neither could one honestly argue that the information passed along to the public has done justice to the complexity of the issues it raises and the trade-offs it demands.

One case in point can be found in a recent speech the president gave in support of the 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year. Speaking at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy on June 9, and focusing exclusively on security issues, the president made the claim that the Act has allowed authorities to "charge more than 400 people in terrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and convict more than half." Alas, in a first-rate piece of reporting published back on May 16, the Des Moines Register reported that the Justice Department has, since 2001, vastly expanded its definition of what constitutes a "terrorism-related" crime, and what's more, refuses to release figures as to how many people it has arrested, and how many it has convicted. As The Century Foundation points out, "One section [of the Act] expands the scope of the offense of providing 'material support' to a terrorist organization, in language that at least one federal court has held unconstitutionally vague."

The Register's investigation also discovered that the Act's definition has grown so elastic that when the authorities are hunting for a terrorist suspect and make an arrest for other reasons, the case is still logged as "anti-terrorism." In an almost comical aside, we learn this expansion of the definition has swept into its net "College entrance-exam cheaters, check forgers, sham husbands and those who overstay visas." What's more, records show that officials at the Justice Department have instructed federal prosecutors to catalog their work in ways that inflate the number of terrorism investigations.

The truth is, Americans have no way of determining just how many investigations are underway, how many people have been arrested, and how many have been convicted. Even so, most of the press corps simply repeated the president's claims verbatim.

One has to wonder just how often these reporters need to be given false information by this president before they realize that nothing--absolutely nothing--that comes out of this White House can be taken on faith, least of all the compromising of our constitutional liberties.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences."