Attorney General John Ashcroft says critics of the PATRIOT Act are stirring up "baseless hysteria" about Section 215 of the law, which authorizes the FBI to demand "any tangible thing" upon certifying to a secret court that it's relevant to a terrorism investigation. (Finding that pro forma trip to court inconvenient, the Justice Department now wants the power to issue its own subpoenas.)
According to Ashcroft, crazy alarmists would have the public believe the FBI is staking out libraries to "ask every person exiting the library, 'Why were you at the library? What were you reading? Did you see anything suspicious?' "
Actually, one of the critics' main points is that you may never know if the FBI snoops through your records, because the people required to provide them are forbidden to talk about it. If the feds approached you directly, at least you'd know they were curious, and (last time I checked) you could decline to answer their questions.
Ashcroft says it's absurd to believe that the FBI wants to know "how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel." The government, he says, "has no interest in your reading habits. Tracking reading habits would betray our high regard for the First Amendment. And even if someone in government wanted to do so, it would represent an impossible workload and a waste of law enforcement resources."
Notice that Ashcroft does not deny that the PATRIOT Act authorizes the government to monitor your reading habits (and many other private aspects of your life). He just says the government has no interest in doing so. All it wants to do is catch the bad guys, and if you've done nothing wrong you have no cause to be concerned--presumably because government officials never waste resources, make mistakes, or act maliciously. In other words: Trust us.