The U.S. Justice Department has said repeatedly that it has never used controversial Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the section that allows the FBI to search bookstore, library, medical and other records of private citizens with a special court order.
Or has it?
Last month the American Library Association released the results of a survey of thousands of academic and public libraries around the country. The ALA found that 137 requests for library records have been made by federal, state and local law enforcement agents since October 2001.
Whether those 137 requests for information are directly related to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is unknown, says ALA spokeswoman Bernadette Murphy. Under the section’s provisions, librarians are legally forbidden to discuss whether Section 215 was invoked during official government records searches.
The ALA survey, then, simply reveals what the public has known since the days when J. Edgar Hoover spied on American citizens he didn’t like: that law enforcement snoops around in the lives of private citizens. There’s no way of knowing if the searches were directly related to the PATRIOT Act or if they were just law enforcement business as usual. Nor could the ALA ask which specific records the government wanted.
Wading into this swirl of paranoia and suspicion are two Montana legislators, Democrat Jim Elliott of Trout Creek and Republican Jim Shockley of Victor. The two are warning anyone who will listen to be wary of a PATRIOT Act that tramples individual liberties in the guise of fighting terrorism.
Yet neither legislator, when asked recently, was aware the government was searching library records nor, apparently, was the Missoulian when, in a June 22 editorial, the paper repeated the Justice Department party line about Section 215 having never been used in library searches.
In any case, Elliott says the fact that government agents can request the records of private citizens is more important than the fact that they have. “Whether they did it or not is immaterial,” he says. “The fact that they can do it makes it espionage.”