Congress’ debate over renewing the USA Patriot Act centers largely on whether federal agents should be able to investigate Americans’ reading habits, says Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Both the House and the Senate have added restrictions to the 2001 anti-terrorism law’s so-called library provision, which has become its most bitterly debated part. The criticism perplexes the Justice Department, which said it has yet to use the law’s power to obtain library or bookstore records. The American Library Association says that since October 2001, law enforcement officials have contacted libraries at least 200 times for things such as circulation records and computer hard drives. “It tells us that, despite what they’re saying, federal law enforcement is indeed interested in libraries,” said the association’s Patrice McDermott.
In one case, FBI agents wanted to know who’d checked out a book about Osama bin Laden after a library patron reported seeing a handwritten note in the margin calling hostility toward America “a religious obligation.” FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said agents don’t conduct “fishing expeditions,” or untargeted searches, as the librarians’ fear. “We still can’t just go to a library and say we want to know who’s been reading the bin Laden book,” Cogswell said. “We still have to have a reason for looking at those records. People forget that.”