The U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare moment of political courage, defied President Bush Wednesday by scaling back the rights-robbing USA Patriot Act, a knee-jerk post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law.
The House voted 238-187 to, among other changes, make it harder for federal agents to secretly gather information on people’s library reading habits and bookstore purchases..
“We can fight terrorism without undermining basic constitutional rights. That’s what the message of today is about,” said Rep. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who pushed the measure through the House with the support of 38 Republicans.
The White House has warned Congress that any weakening of the Patriot Act would prompt senior advisers to recommend that Bush veto the $57.5 billion bill to fund activities next year for the Justice Department and other federal agencies, which now contains Sanders’ amendment.
The Senate has not yet debated its version of the bill.
Under the Patriot Act, federal law enforcement authorities can get permission from a special court to investigate what books people buy at bookstores or borrow from libraries, even if they are not suspected of committing any crime.
If the House measure becomes law, which is still a long way off, authorities would have to revert to the more traditional method of convincing federal grand juries of likely criminal activities before starting such investigations.
Civil libertarians said there was no evidence the government had ever used this security provision. But they argued the law presents potential threats to privacy and was unnecessary.
Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, in a letter to Congress dated on Tuesday, said the law has been used to obtain records of driver’s licenses, apartment leases and credit cards, and that the administration has used it “judiciously and responsibly.”
Bookstores and libraries, Moschella wrote, “should not be carved out as safe havens for terrorists and spies, who have, in fact, used public libraries to do research and communicate with their co-conspirators.”
Last year the House defeated a similar proposal offered by Sanders. This year’s version deleted references to material read on the Internet and would also maintain federal agents’ ability to more easily scrutinize business records that could point to suspicious activities.
“The simple truth is that the FBI could spy on a person because they don’t like the books she reads, or because she wrote a letter to the editor critical of a governmental policy,” Sanders said.
“Parents want to know that just because their kid is researching the life of Osama bin Laden, or studying terrorism, that that fact should not place the student on a government list or make anyone think that he/she is sympathetic to terrorism,” he said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, argued the current law could help federal law enforcement pick up the trail of someone plotting a chemical, biological, nuclear or conventional attack on the United States.
“You all seem to want to wait until the crime is committed and then you can use your criminal law to get at it. We want to detect and prevent it,” Shays said.