Lost in the current furor over missing National Guard duty and misread intelligence was President Bush’s demand last month that Congress extend the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

That package of antiterrorism measures, rushed into law following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, is set to expire next year.

Many people, including Republicans, would be happy to see at least one part of the act, Section 215, disappear. That provision allows federal authorities secretly to obtain records of libraries and bookstores without probable cause for use in “foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.”

The section’s possible threat to civil liberties has prompted bipartisan efforts in Congress — 10 measures are in the works — and in more than 200 communities around the country to amend it, but Bush has chosen to ignore the opposition.

Now, there’s a drive on to get his attention.

It’s called the Campaign for Reader Privacy. It was launched last week by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association and PEN American Center.

They aim to get a million signatures on petitions opposing 215 and to present them to the White House by next year. Supporters can find the petitions soon in libraries, bookstores and online at www.readerprivacy.com.

Backers of the campaign include a range of commercial publishers from Random House to Yale University Press and booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and major distributors Baker & and Taylor and Ingram.

These are not fringe groups or obscure radical elements in American society but mainstream, money-making companies that still manage to put their faith in the Bill of Rights.

Section 215 poses problems for those constitutional freedoms because it presumes that reading can be a criminal act.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft calls 215 opposition “hysteria” and claims that it’s never been used in bookstores and libraries. (It should be pointed out that he made that remark in a speech to the American Restaurant Association.)

That statement prompted Judith Krug, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, to ask:

“If he’s never used it, why does he need it?”

However, because 215 imposes a gag order on targets of record searches, “there’s no way of knowing” if Ashcroft is telling the truth, Krug pointed out.

She might have added that since the attorney general has avoided press inquiries, including a ban on questions from print journalists, there’s also no way of asking him.

Last year, Ashcroft mounted a publicity campaign for the Patriot Act in a series of speeches before closed audiences of hand-picked law enforcement officials. There would be no public debate on his part.

Ashcroft, however, did order U.S. attorneys to hold forums in the fall, causing Mary Beth Buchanan to spar with Witold Walczak of Pittsburgh’s ACLU at a meeting in September.

Buchanan did make a case for many of the Patriot Act’s provisions as practical in these days of terrorism fears and most agree with her. It’s really only 215 that’s the problem.

Removing libraries and bookstores from its authority would pose no threat to the effectiveness of the overall law.

But governments have always been suspicious of words and those who write them, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In centuries since, poets and other artists have been banned, jailed and executed because of their so-called threat to power.

Our democracy has been more genteel. American presidents have merely thrown editors in jail, members of Congress have dragged artists into hearing chambers and Sen. Joe McCarthy sent Roy Cohn to inspect library shelves.

It doesn’t take much, however, to prompt the government to move from writers to political opponents, as Eugene V. Debs discovered after he protested the military draft in World War I and wound up in federal prison.

Excess has a way of defeating itself. When the civil liberty abuses reached a breaking point after Watergate, corrective measures were drafted to keep America’s security agents focused on real threats rather than hotel beds.

The FBI was stopped from monitoring public meetings unless the organizers had ties to foreign countries or agents, like al-Quaeda, not the peace organization gathering in a Quaker meeting house.

In the spirit of Section 215, Ashcroft has dropped those safeguards and told the FBI that any public gathering, regardless of who sponsors it, is fair game.

A line has been crossed. Maybe it’s a few inches over this year, maybe a few more next year.

Sign the Reader Privacy petition and push back.

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