PEN protests Ashcroft comments on librarians, urges repeal of Patriot Act
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
United States Attorney General
Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Mr. Ashcroft,
We are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms your recent speech deriding the concerns that librarians, booksellers, and other organizations have expressed over Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.
The remarks you delivered at the National Restaurant Association’s Annual Public Affairs Conference were, we believe, both offensive in tone and misguided in fact. To accuse those who have raised questions about the intrusiveness and secrecy of Section 215 of engaging in “breathless reports and baseless hysteria” is at best disingenuous, given the Justice Department’s refusal to enter into a public discussion about how the law has been applied since it was passed. To mock these concerns in a quote you invented not only mischaracterizes what have in fact been thoughtfully formulated and carefully articulated concerns, but also demeans democratic process and discourse. And to suggest that librarians in particular have somehow been misled by exaggerated rhetoric from the extremes quite simply denigrates the personal, professional, and political sophistication of some of the most civic-minded members of the book community.
In fact, librarians and booksellers were among the first in our community to raise concerns about the implications of Section 215. They did so in anything but a shrill way, seeking to understand and abide by the law while communicating their concerns over the law’s sweeping investigative powers and its prohibitions regarding disclosing or discussing actual Section 215-related inquiries. Like many organizations in the literary and free expression communities, PEN came to share their concerns. We were convinced that federal investigators already possessed the necessary tools to access the bookstore and library records of anyone suspected of involvement in crimes including terrorism. We had grave doubts about the provision’s attempt to remove the “probable cause” showing associated with these existing tools and its apparent license to search records of individuals with no suspected connection to or knowledge of any crimes. We were convinced that diminishing court scrutiny of search requests and shielding the entire process of seeking and exercising authorization from any public oversight or review was a clear invitation to abuse. In light of two recent reports by your own department’s Inspector General that detail significant abuses of powers granted to law enforcement under anti-terrorism legislation, it is hard to see how these concerns can be dismissed as “baseless hysteria.”
We hope that your decision this week to abandon your disparaging attacks on librarians, booksellers, and civil libertarians and instead release information on the use of Section 215 to access bookstore and library records marks a turning point in the administration’s willingness to engage in open, respectful public debate about the specifics of the USA PATRIOT Act and other standing and proposed anti-terror legislation. We should note, however, that if it is indeed true that Section 215 has not been used once to gain access to these records, our concerns will be little relieved. If this is true, any exaggerated notions of the law’s dangers are the direct result of your department’s refusal to engage in a public discussion of the law’s application. Seen in this light, the very real possibility that such a notion may have chilled the willingness of even a small number of Americans to access information through their local libraries and bookstore is particularly disturbing.
Finally, in light of this information, we must ask again what our community has asked since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed in October 2001: in what way, exactly, are these new tools necessary? Unused through two years of what must surely be the most thorough anti-terror effort in US history, they stand now as little more than invitations to abuse. Asking that the law be amended to protect the privacy of library and bookstore records is not, as your department’s spokesman suggested today, like stripping a police officer of her service revolver simply because she has not used it in 20 years of service. It is, rather, simply recognizing the fact that the weapons law enforcement possesses now are sufficient to the task.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
PEN AMERICAN CENTER