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FBI Search for Records Will Be Disclosed

September 18, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will disclose previously classified information on how frequently the FBI has sought records from libraries and businesses under the Patriot Act, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft decided Wednesday.

Ashcroft told the president of the American Library Assn., Carla Hayden of Baltimore, in a telephone call that he was removing the veil of secrecy surrounding one of the most contentious provisions of the anti-terrorism law passed a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We're very gratified that the American public is now going to know what is happening in public libraries," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the library group's Washington office.

Senior law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the conversation took place.

Critics have said the FBI's authority to obtain the records threatens the privacy and 1st Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons. Law enforcement officials have claimed that the power is rarely used, is properly supervised by judges and is essential to combat terrorism.

The American Civil Liberties Union and members of Congress who have criticized that part of the law said that Ashcroft is taking a positive step by declassifying the FBI records. But they said the potential for abuse remains.

Ashcroft's move follows two speeches he delivered this week denouncing as "baseless hysteria" claims by the ACLU, the library association and others that the Patriot Act allows the FBI to snoop unchecked into Americans' reading habits.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said that Ashcroft's decision appeared to be mostly public relations aimed at tackling the speeches' fallout.

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