The House has voted to strike down a part of the PATRIOT Act relating to library and bookstore records on a vote of 238 to 187. The act allowed the FBI to use a special court system to get authorization to look through a host of small business records rather than the traditional subpoena system.
This move will undoubtedly hurt our ability to stop acts of terrorism. Those who voted for this bill seem to think that the FBI could just look at anyone’s records at any time. However, in order to get authorization for such a search, the FBI must go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and get an order authorizing the search. In other words, the FBI must have some reasonable basis to believe that someone’s involved in terrorist activity. The FBI doesn’t give a damn about some schlub who’s been checking out Dude Where’s My Country and the like — they’re more worried about the Pakistani with suspected al-Qaeda ties checking out books on chemical warfare and looking at plans for the local shopping mall.
This provision of the PATRIOT Act has never been used to look at library records, and the idea that library records are somehow so sancrosanct that its a horrendous violation of privacy to even look at them is patently ridiculous. The entire argument about libraries is really just a canard – already the FBI has used this provision 35 times to investigate things like apartment leases, car rentals, and credit card records. This power enables the FBI and other counterterrorism organizations to retrieve exceptionally valuable information that can mean the difference between thousands of dead Americans and another foiled attempt at a terrorist attack.
There’s nothing wrong with wishing to protect civil liberties, but this action was simply a kneejerk reaction to some ill-informed propaganda. Congress has the right to set strict evidentiary limits before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will authorize such a search – tightening those requirements would have ensured that the civil liberties would be adaquately protected without sacrificing the FBI’s ability to fight the terrorists who threaten the lives of millions. Instead of giving this issue due consideration, the House simply threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Al-Qaeda has not gone away, and their resolve to attack the United States remains strong. Meanwhile, our resolve in fighting them wavers day by day. Bin Laden believed that a free society would soon surrender to decadence and grow weak as the populace forgot about the groups who seek their destruction. Sadly, it appears that we’re slowly but surely proving bin Laden’s point — we remain at war, and our policymakers must never forget that.