As Congress debated the renewal of the USA Patriot Act in recent months, critics of the law focused on potential abuses stemming from a section they dubbed the “library provision,” says the Los Angeles Times. That section alarmed civil libertarians because it granted the government broad powers to obtain records about individuals in terrorism investigations – even from libraries, bookstores, and other places that might reveal personal habits. Yet the library provision has turned out to be rarely used. Instead, the tool of choice for federal agents has been a more obscure measure, a form of administrative subpoena known as a national security letter. Such letters have been used thousands of times; that fact has until recently been virtually lost amid the intense discussions on renewing the controversial law.
Lisa Graves of the American Civil Liberties Union said that, “Based on everything we know now,” national security letters are “certainly currently more worrisome” and “more problematic for privacy on a grander scale,” compared with the library provision. The Justice Department disputed the suggestion that it was withholding information to affect the outcome of the debate. “Any substantive dialogue about the use of national security letters should focus on the clearly articulated safeguards included in the bill regarding their use,” said department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.