The House handed President Bush the first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act, voting yesterday to curtail the FBI’s ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations, reports the Washington Post. Bush has threatened to veto any measure that weakens those powers. The surprise 238 to 187 rebuke to the White House was produced when a handful of conservative Republicans, worried about government intrusion, joined with Democrats who are concerned about personal privacy.
One provision of the Patriot Act makes it possible for the FBI to obtain a wide variety of personal records about a suspected terrorist — including library transactions — with an order from a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where the government must meet a lower threshold of proof than in criminal courts. Under the House change, officials would have to get search warrants from a judge or subpoenas from a grand jury to seize records about a suspect’s reading habits. Some libraries have said they are disposing of patrons’ records more quickly because of the provision, which opponents view as a license for fishing expeditions.