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Barring the Book Snoops

August 08, 2003

In December, a St. Louis library user whispered that a Middle Eastern-looking man using the public computers seemed suspicious. The librarian called the FBI, but the man left before agents arrived. In an effort to identify him, the agents asked for and got a thick stack of papers listing everyone who had used the library's computers in the previous week.

The FBI's visit in St. Louis became public because of a tip to the local paper. Only the government knows what transpired at the 50 or so other libraries that, according to a Justice Department report in May, federal agents have contacted as part of terrorist hunts since Sept. 11, 2001.

Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act greatly expanded the government's power to demand that librarians, booksellers and video stores show agents which book titles any customer may have read and which movies and Web sites he or she may have seen. The act forbids librarians or store owners to ever tell that person that the FBI came calling.

No one knows how little might trigger a visit. Reading the Koran? Con Coughlin's biography of Saddam Hussein or Bernard Lewis' histories of the Middle East? Maybe renting a "Nova" documentary on radioactive bombs?

The notion that reading or watching makes someone suspect is fundamentally at odds with America's commitment to the free flow of ideas and has galvanized librarians, booksellers and some in Congress.

Long before 2001, many libraries, including the Los Angeles Public Library, routinely erased patron records. Since the Patriot Act became law, many libraries have begun to shred computer sign-in sheets and delete backup data tapes as well.

If there is now little personal data for FBI agents to seize at most public libraries, the same is not true at book and video stores. Many store owners hold on to purchase records for tax purposes or to track customers' reading and viewing tastes so they can sell them more books and videos.

Congress should amend Section 215, blocking government agents from confiscating these records unless they are actually tailing a terrorism or espionage suspect, not just fishing for one. Two bills to do that by various means are now before the House and Senate -- legislation identified as HR 1157 and S 1507. Both would help restore the balance between the domestic security that everyone wants and the 1st Amendment freedoms Americans cherish.

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