Is Someone Reading Over Your Shoulder?
Campaign For Reader Privacy
Campaign for Reader Privacy News
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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dear Member of Congress:

Since the PATRIOT Act became law, we have known that federal investigators could learn what we, our organizations’ members, and the millions of readers we serve are researching or reading. We knew that our bookstore, library, and Internet records could be obtained even if we were not suspected of involvement in terrorism; that no avenue existed for those who receive PATRIOT Act orders to challenge them in court; and that a gag provision would prevent booksellers, librarians, and Internet providers from telling us that our records had been sought. By the time we launched the Campaign for Reader Privacy in late 2003, we also knew that the FBI had made hundreds of visits to libraries across the country requesting patron information.

What we didn’t know—but might have gathered from the fact that these requests were often made with no warrant whatsoever—was how cavalierly the administration viewed even the fragile judicial checks in Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. It is only recently that we have learned how heavily the FBI has relied on National Security Letters (NSLs) to gather information, with FBI agents reportedly writing themselves over 30,000 of these orders a year. And only last month did we learn that the White House has bypassed the PATRIOT Act, the system established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the FBI completely in a massive domestic surveillance and data-mining operation.

In short, it is now clear that the administration has conducted a dishonest debate about the PATRIOT Act, in public and in Congress. It blocked congressional efforts to exercise oversight of its powers, withheld information, offered false assurances on the nature and scope of its activities, and accused those who sought to restore judicial and congressional checks on surveillance of weakness in the war on terror. When Congress nevertheless moved to fix unnecessary infringements on civil liberties—as when the House voted last year to deny funding for bookstore and library searches under the PATRIOT Act—the administration worked to thwart the results. House members were prevented from considering an amendment to Section 215 during the reauthorization debate by a leadership that did not allow the amendment to reach the floor. White House pressure distorted the House-Senate conference on the re-authorization of the expiring sections of the PATRIOT Act.

Congress is fortunate to have another opportunity to make critical changes to Section 215 and other expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. We ask that you reconsider these provisions in light of the information about the NSLs and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and the mounting evidence that this administration is determined to expand its powers and operate unrestrained by congressional or judicial checks.

In particular, we urge you to make certain the reauthorized version of Section 215:

  • requires a showing of individualized suspicion that the person whose records are sought is suspected of involvement in terrorism or other criminal activity;
  • makes it possible for booksellers, librarians, and other recipients of Section 215 orders to challenge them in court;
  • limits the length and scope of any gag requirements to what is necessary for the immediate investigation.

We further urge you to create additional safeguards against the abuse of the power to issue National Security Letters and other administrative subpoenas that are issued without judicial review, and to require full disclosure and regular reporting on all surveillance and subpoena powers granted by the PATRIOT Act.

Finally, we urge Congress to act resolutely to clarify the limits of the surveillance powers it has authorized under the PATRIOT Act, other antiterrorism measures, and Congressional resolutions authorizing military action, and to bring all surveillance operations within the scope of established law and subject to judicial and congressional review.


Michael Gorman
President, American Library Association

Mitchell Kaplan
President, American Booksellers Association

Patricia S. Schroeder
President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of American Publishers

Salman Rushdie
President, PEN American Center