Hysterical Librarians


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.

NEXT: Fair Play for Colorado Committee

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  1. joe,

    He probably got it from the same place where you learned to think SUV drivers were motivated by the evil in their hearts, or maybe where you got the idea to call Republicans obedient to a set of talking points.

  2. This is the same government that accidentally kills innocent people in drug raids because they got the wrong address (using the kind of expanded powers that Ashcroft seeks to use for a variety of purposes).

    … but we should trust them.

    (and no-name: avoid libraries and pay cash? Maybe I should just have my books smuggled in from Canada.)

  3. The books in libraries do not belong to the “government”. They are our books, paid for with our tax money. You know, I’m pretty sure in Iran they monitor what books people are reading. Probably in N. Korea too. No doubt, in Saudi Arabia and Syria as well.

    I mean, that’s why we invaded Iraq right? To learn directly from the source how to achieve a totalitarian regime, right?

  4. Mean people suck.

  5. (and no-name: avoid libraries and pay cash? Maybe I should just have my books smuggled in from Canada.)

    That cracked me up. But seriously, I sense some level of a double standard. In that we welcome credit card fraud protection via scrutinizing our purchasing patterns and increased record documentation and electronic tracking for financial protection and security when it suits us (understandably). But freak out when we realize that it could be used to scrutinized our purchases and make records of transactions and track our activities. Which is what we wanted it to do, right?

  6. Well, although many here might object to the existence of public libraries, as long as the libraries are run by local gov’t’s (which in turn are under the auspices of the allegedly sovereign states), the books in the public library are most certainly NOT the property of the federal government, and so the feds have no right to know who reads them.

    Whether those library books should be owned by local gov’t’s, or instead be owned by private library foundations is beside the point. They do not belong to the feds, so the feds have no business knowing who reads them.

    The only proper reason I can see for the feds to look at library records would be in cases where a library book shows up at the scene of a federal crime (pretend, for the sake of argument, that Congress only banned actions that the Constitution authorizes it to ban). Then the federal agents might have probable cause to get a warrant for the very narrow purpose of finding out who had checked out that particular book most recently, so they could find out who was at the scene of the crime.

    And before somebody invokes the specter of terrorists learning from library books how to build a nuke or engineer a virus, as a physicist let me tell you that I’m usually unimpressed by the quality of the science books in public libraries. The terrorist would be much better off going to Barnes and Noble, asking them to order a book for him, using a fake name for the book order, and then paying with cash when it arrives.

  7. Not all libraries are public libraries.

  8. thoreau,

    You can get any number of excellent nuclear engineering texts through Amazon.com using stolen credit card #’s and a fake address, for that matter.

    I seem to recall several weeks (months?) ago that you mentioned that your wife works at a B&N. Are you plugging them? 🙂

    You know, my wife also worked at a bookstore while I was in grad school….Borders

  9. Citizen,

    But you’re letting the credit card companies track the info for a specific purpose. And more importantly, they don’t have the power to arrest you or seize your property. I’m a lot more leery of giving that tracking power to the people responsible for–let’s see–the Palmer Raids, Japanese internment camps, and COINTELPRO, among other things.


    You’re right, I gotta get rid of my tinfoil hat and start acting normal. For starters, I’ll cover up the tits on statues and keep a sharp eye out for calico cats. “Let the eeeaaaagle soarrr….”

  10. Hank,

    Some of those books are voluntarily paid for by folks who donate either dollars or books to the library. I’ve been known to do this from time to time, commie that I am (instead of trying to re-sell them like any good capitalist)!

  11. Yep, my wife is working at B&N while I’m finishing grad school. Since your wife worked at Borders does this make us rivals or something? 😉

    As long as you didn’t go to a rival school we should be fine. 😉

  12. how is it that the public personage most prominently opposed to any civil liberty ended up the head of the law enforcement establishment of the federal government?

    you can argue fine points if you like, but the broad point remains: our government — meaning the army, the secret police and the political parties — can use this law to control the flow of information through arrest and intimidation.

    that is not a characteristic of a free society. even if it is not being widely used against the general populus now, the lesson of history is that it inevitably will be. can anyone see that as good?

  13. If the AG is so adamant about the gov’t’s lack of interest in knowing our reading habits, why is he so concerned about efforts to overturn (or at least ammend) the legislation that enables the feds to do so?

    Surely there are some provisions in PATRIOT that might actually be to our benefit and increased safety. This doesn’t excuse the fact that this monstrous piece of legislation enables all manner of abuse. Whether this was the result of malicious planning or (more likely) sloppy legislation is irrelevant…it needs to be dealt with.

    Ashcroft could do himself and the cause of homeland security a great favor by acknowledging the potential flaws in the legislation and working with lawmakers to correct them, rather than being condescending and dismissive of any and all criticisms of PATRIOT.

    As long as his strategy is to casitigate all opposition as paranoid, I’m inclined to stay paranoid.

  14. Has anyone actually mentioned that a warrent is still required under the Patriot Act to access these records?

  15. Brian,

    Well said

  16. oh yes, i forgot in reason-land that to critique someone’s critique of patriot automatically makes me an supporer of patriot and an aschroft fan.

    shame on me for thinking that hysterics, bad arguements and shameless half-truths are a poor way to combat hysterics, bad arguemtns and shameless half-truths.

  17. thoreau,

    You’re on the left coast (left? hmmmmmmmmmm….), and I was neither Pac 10 nor Big Ten, so probably not…although I am thinking about Stanford’s online MS in Applied Physics…:)

    Joe mentioned inventory tracking earlier, and that reminded me of a possibly apocryphal story from a few years back.

    A grocery store customer in VA slipped and fell on a wet floor. The customer sued, and as part of its defense, the grocery store chain did some data mining on the customer’s shopper’s club card records. Their defense was that the customer was an alcoholic and likely drunk, based on regular alcohol purchases over the past year or two.

    This creeped me out and pissed me off when I heard about it, but I really don’t know if it’s true. Does anybody out there know?

  18. 1) you could pay cash at the bookstore, but since purchases are scanned and tracked they could cross-reference the time of purchase with surveillance tape recordings. it’s extreme, but not difficult or hard to imagine.

    2) speaking of tin foilhats – our AG belongs to a religion which, amongst a pile of other modern secular evils, is strongly against social dancing as a degrading force in society.

    fuck that. when we get leaders whose imaginary friends aren’t afraid of the nefarious uses for the breasts and genitals they supposedly created THEN i’ll take my damn tinfoil hat off.

  19. to be fair, #1 is just an added incentive to buy the most batshit crazy cross-section of books possible.

  20. Heather MacDonald:

    A running theme of the campaign against section 215 and many other Patriot Act provisions is that they violate the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. But there is no Fourth Amendment privacy right in records or other items disclosed to third parties. A credit-card user, for example, reveals his purchases to the seller and to the credit-card company. He therefore has no privacy expectations in the record of those purchases that the Fourth Amendment would protect. As a result, the government, whether in a criminal case or a terror investigation, may seek his credit-card receipts without a traditional Fourth Amendment showing to a court that there is ?probable cause? to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Instead, terror investigators must convince the FISA court that the receipts are ?relevant.?

    Despite librarians? fervent belief to the contrary, this analysis applies equally to library patrons? book borrowing or Internet use. The government may obtain those records without violating anyone?s Fourth Amendment rights, because the patron has already revealed his borrowing and web browsing to library staff, other readers (in the days of handwritten book checkout cards), and Internet service providers.

  21. “A credit-card user, for example, reveals his purchases to the seller and to the credit-card company. He therefore has no privacy expectations in the record of those purchases that the Fourth Amendment would protect.”

    I’m no Fourth Amendment or privacy expert, but on the surface of it, this argument seems akin to saying that there no reason to show probable cause to tap my phone since by revealing what I have to say to someone else I should have no privacy expectation. As Kevin Carson pointed out, you’re giving that credit card information for a specific purpose, and going even further, just because you give information to one person (or even an organization), how does that make it fair game to all?

  22. fyodor: In this case the 4th ammendment protects the cr. card company from search and seizure. It is THEIR records in question — that just happen to be about your purchases. When we say the company has YOUR records we are being semantically sloppy.

    Nor is there specific constitiuonal right to a nebulous concept of “privacy” and don’t I see a moral one either. It is a libertarian myth and one that many perpetuate despite knowing better.

    Your recourse is to 1) Don’t do business with companies that keep records and turn them over to the police 2) Sue the company in question if they vioated their own privacy policy (which could be a violation of contract – however this wouldn’t stop the police from getting access to the company’s records).

  23. Earlier this year, the Justice Department admitted it had approached libraries with subpoenas about 50 times. At the same time, the American Library Association stated that libraries had reported 175 DOJ subpoenas. This is very serious,and has a potentially chilling effect on libraries and bookstores, which are subject to the same section 215.
    Many libraries & bookstores are destroying records of books checked-out or purchased, in order to protect patrons’ privacy.
    I keep no records at my bookstore:
    Renaissance Bookshop
    6639 Magnolia Ave
    Riverside, CA 92506
    So come on down.

  24. shit! and I bought Rebels on the Air with my credit card.

    Now I am the LIST. Tell the world my story.

  25. I’m no expert, either, but I read the 9th and 10th to say that 1) specifically mentioning certain rights doesn’t mean that others don’t exist, and 2) powers not given to the Federal government by the Constitution don’t belong to them.

    To me, that means maybe I do have a right to privacy, or at a minimum, the Feds don’t have the right to invade it without a damn good reason.

    Of course, I entertain no delusions that the federal government feels constrained by the Constitution anymore, so any constitutional argument (on either side) is sort of a non-starter, if one is realistic about these things.

  26. Brian: Privacy is not a right. If you buy something and a company keeps a record, IT BELONGS TO THE COMPANY.

    Any issue between the company and the government is their issue, and the 4th ammendment says quite clearly they can look at anything they want with a warrent.

    Your issue is only if a contract was broken to not keep a record (but that does not affect the goverment/company interaction).

    I fail to see how making up nebulaous “rights” and non-existant constitutional clauses increases liberty. The 4th doesn’t just exist to protect us from the government but also gives a process on how the government can protect us from criminals.

    If it bothers you I suggest you keep a lower profile.

    That being said, the government should follow the rules and get a warrent before accessing someone’s files (and that someone is the lawful owner of the files — just because your name is on a form does not entitle you ownership).


  27. Samwise Gamgee,

    Good point that the credit card company’s records belong to them, not to the customers referenced by the records. But am I to take it that the credit card company cooperation is entirely voluntary?

  28. Also, I should point out that just because something is constitutional doesn’t make it good policy. And just because our credit card company’s records of our purchases are not our own personal property, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should allow our government to be able to investigate those records.

  29. Sam–

    I don’t disagree about who owns the records that credit card companies keep…

    …but are you really willing to cede anything and everything that isn’t specifically prohibited to the governement if they ask? Note that I’m not asserting a “right to privacy” here (I only said that it *may* exist)…I’m merely arguing that the government should leave you and me and creditors and libraries alone unless they have probable cause. The fact that PATRIOT (among other things) allows them to pursue warrants and execute them in secret to me suggests that the don’t want to have to deal with any sort of accountability. Ideally, the courts should provide that, but in the absence of any public record to that effect, how are we to know that they do? We have appointed officials (hopefully) being held in check by appointed judges who are effectively accountable to no one.

    On keeping a lower profile…I can think of no more certain sign that a government has overstepped its bounds than when a reasonable law-abiding citizen (which I happen to be) feels the need to keep a low profile. Honestly, I’m a long way from feeling that way, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak out when I see us heading in that direction.

  30. Anon 0443:

    I bought Rebels on the Air from the Loompanics Catalog. I guess that means I’d better be on good terms with a safe house network or have some good fake ID when the big one hits.

  31. Gene Berkman:

    Could you please explain what’s so chilling about the Patriot act, given that you’re destroying customer records, and don’t seem to have been sent to prison for it?

  32. I’m merely arguing that the government should leave you and me and creditors and libraries alone unless they have probable cause.

    We are so sorry if the Islamist war on America is inconveniencing you.

    MacDonald again:

    When the War on Terror?s opponents intone, ?We need not trade liberty for security,? they are right?but not in the way they think. Contrary to their slogan?s assumption, there is no zero-sum relationship between liberty and security. The government may expand its powers to detect terrorism without diminishing civil liberties one iota, as long as those powers remain subject to traditional restraints: statutory prerequisites for investigative action, judicial review, and political accountability. So far, these conditions have been met.

    But the larger fallacy at the heart of the elites? liberty-versus-security formula is its blindness to all threats to freedom that do not emanate from the White House. Nothing the Bush administration has done comes close to causing the loss of freedom that Americans experienced after 9/11, when air travel shut down for days, and fear kept hundreds of thousands shut up in their homes. Should al-Qaida strike again, fear will once again paralyze the country far beyond the effects of any possible government restriction on civil rights. And that is what the government is trying to forestall, in the knowledge that preserving security is essential to preserving freedom.

  33. this argument seems akin to saying that there no reason to show probable cause to tap my phone since by revealing what I have to say to someone else I should have no privacy expectation.

    You missed the part about “third parties”.

  34. Anon–

    That’s nice. Do you have any thoughts of your own that you would care to contribute?

    As to what Ms. MacDonald has to say, I would argue that we have absolutely no way of knowing that the “traditional restraints” are working as they should…this is the biggest problem I have with PATRIOT. Others may see other aspects of it more troubling, but I would not presume to speak for them.

    Speaking of being presumtuious…I don’t see how anyone could interpret my first post in this thread (way back at 2:33) as “blindness to all threats to freedom that do not emanate from the White House.” Quite the contrary…I think that parts of PATRIOT have probably helped to forstall attacks on our soil since 9.11.01. (Of course, given the secret nature of how the act is applied, there’s really no way for us to know that, either.)

    Most citizens of this country have no ability to reduce the threats from foriegn terrorists…but we (theoretically) have the ability to reduce the threats from our own government. Just because we’re focusing on what we have the power to change doesn’t mean that we are ignoring what we can’t.

  35. how about this? instead of borrowing books from government-run libraries, you buy them yourself?

    but i forgot that mindless bashing aschroft is point and we a have a “right” under the first ammendment to government-provided books with no strings attached (and don;t kid yourself, they have been jacking library records pre-patriot, really its called barnes and noble, buck up!)

  36. The same law allows them to snoop on bookstores.


  37. pay cash

    (until the leftists ban it)

  38. Inventory tracking. Every book gets scanned.

  39. Ashcroft can trace the fact you paid for a book with cash? Must be the secret tracers he hides in dollar bills (that fascist!), but wouldn’t those interfere with him scanning our brainwaves? That foil strip in the bill should block these out since the foil also works when you put it on your head.

    Clearly Ashrcroft is completely off base for asserting there is hysteria over Patriot.

  40. Regardless of the legitimacy of PATRIOT critics’ arguments, Aschcroft’s diatribe was the worst kind of strawman hooey. Who the hell ever claimed the FBI is going to question everyone exiting a library? It’s not much of an argument to say the government should have the power to do something cause it doesn’t have the resources to do it to everyone.

  41. “Tracking reading habits would betray our high regard for the First Amendment”

    So Ashcroft is admitting that a law which would allow him to track reading habits–regardless of whether he actually did or not–is unconstitutional?

    Because that’s what it sounds like he’s saying to me.

  42. Joe/anon,

    Some bookstores are dropping the keeping of records to protect their customers for this very reason.

    OTOH, it ain’t liberty and it ain’t freedom if you have to do what you don’t want to to have it.

  43. brainwave scans. tinfoil. Gee, where’d you get the idea to call people who don’t like the act crazy?

    So obedient, these Republicans.

  44. I happened to hear Ashcroft’s delivery of the Tom Clancy lines. The sarcastic, patronizing tone was pretty unusual, even for him. Between the tone and the content, he made it clear that the audience must be wacko-crazy to think the FBI would ever screw anything up.

    He was speaking to one of the best read audiences in America. My guess is Marian-the-Librarian won’t soon forget this.

  45. McDonald wrote (on a different website):
    “Nothing the Bush administration has done comes close to causing the loss of freedom that Americans experienced after 9/11, when air travel shut down for days, and fear kept hundreds of thousands shut up in their homes.”

    Well, actually, unless Osama bin Laden is running the FAA, the loss of freedom associated with the shutdown of air travel was 100% the Bush administration’s fault. The airlines wanted to resume regular service the next day. And the notion that “fear” costs you your freedom is as bogus as saying that poverty costs you your freedom. The only force on Earth capable of depriving Americans of their freedom as a people is the US government.

  46. “…and the 4th ammendment says quite clearly they can look at anything they want with a warrent.”

    Actually the Fourth Amendment states that warrants have to have particularity to them; “anything” cannot be looked at with a warrant in other words. Of course given the reading the Fourth Amendment is given these days, your position is largely correct in real life.

  47. BTW, since we are discussing the Fourth Amendment, I thought that posting its entire text might be useful:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

  48. “By your rationale the power of Congress to raise Armies is bad, because armies could be used against citizens.”

    That is the correct rationale. Thus the right of the citizens to keep and bear arms, which several members of Congress always seem to want to restrict.

  49. Surely one has some right to privacy to begin with even if it could be tenuously argued that they volutarily surrender some of their privacy by volunteering information to the credit card company etc.

    Without a right to privacy or concrete laws based on that assumption would one have any legal recourse against for example an establishment they frequent when they find out it has hidden cameras in the restroom? Possibly they’d have a fraud case – as they were not told it had cameras in the restroom. That seems a stretch though.

  50. I agree that there would be no Patriot Act if Gore were President.

    Really and what do you base this on? Gore?s support of the 1996 Anti-terrorism bill and the 1994 Crime Bill? His expressed desire to make the ?EPA as feared as the IRS?? Holding Congressional hearings on ?offensive music lyrics? in the 1980s?

    Please share with the rest of us why it is we should believe that a President Gore would not have passed or signed into law the Patriot Act or something comparable.

  51. Samwise wrote: “PATRIOT was enacted to stop terrorism, which is a threat to our freedoms. That fact it could be misused is not very relevant”

    Do you actually believe the words you are typing? History shows that prosecutors and law enforcement agencies will routinely bend definitions and interpretations of statutes and regulations to the outer limit of reasonability and beyond. (Read the article from this October’s issue of REASON on the SEC’s continuing attempts to broaden the interpretation of “insider trading”.) Laws need to be drafted as narrowly and tightly as possible to limit this sort of prosecutorial creativity.

  52. Can anyone suggest a few titles that would actually be likely to trigger the interest of the feds? I don’t think that ordinary physics, biology, chemistry texts would be red flags. Maybe something like the “Anarchists Cookbook?” Any ideas?

  53. I don’t see why they would care about “reading habits” – most likely they care about maps, floorplans, government documents and other things you find at the library that could be used in planning an attack. The Internet connection could be used to communicate with collaborators.

    Saying the government gives a shit about your personal reading habits is a scare tactic, like saying that a cop has a gun so he can randomly shoot people. I am not convinced that this law should exist (thought I don’t think it is unconstitutional or morally wrong) but trying to scare people into thinking it is being used for something that is not its purpose is counterproductive.

  54. Kevin-

    Amen to your comment on people who only fear Big Government if it’s from the opposite party. The whole reason for limiting government is not that “too much power in the hands of the wrong people is bad”, it’s that “too much power is bad.”

    The right wing will probably change its tune when a Democrat Attorney General says that chaining oneself to an abortion clinic is a form of terrorism (I don’t think it is, but I’m saying a leftist with no regard for freedom might think so). Oh, and anybody who ever sent $5 to the group that led the rally where an idiot chained himself to the clinic is a sponsor of terrorism.

    But at that point the left will change its tune. “The Patriot Act isn’t about restricting freedom. It’s a tool against those who threaten freedom, including reproductive freedom.” I’m sure some leftist talking head will say that when it happens.

  55. Jean Bart,

    One of the grievances of the American Revolution was writs of assistance and general warrants. And I believe general warrants, as an issue in the career of John Wilkes, inspired a great deal of sympathy in America. So the present erosion of the Fourth Amendment is yet another example of the way America is sliding back into the very legal doctrines against which she fought a Revolution.


    I recently read an article somewhere arguing, tongue in cheek, that there would be no Patriot Act if Gore was president. Not that Janet Reno (or her successor) wouldn’t have been busily working with Chuck Schumer to cook up a virtual equivalent of USA Patriot, with all the jackboots’ Christman wish list on it–oh no, of course she would. But all the freepers would have gone nuts, even after 9-11, about the Butcher of Waco threatening our civil liberties, and it would have been withdrawn under heavy Republican opposition.

  56. thoreau: PATRIOT was enacted to stop terrorism, which is a threat to our freedoms. That fact it could be misused is not very revelent (and using it to attack protestors is quite a bit differnent that attacking terrorists). By your rationale the power of Congress to raise Armies is bad, because armies could be used against citizens.

    “Too much power is bad” is a dangerous abstraction. The real question is “the appropiate amount and correct application of power.”

  57. There’s also a problem with people who are blind to all threats to freedom that don’t emanate from Janet Reno. The Morris Dees mafia and Clintonoids who saw the civil liberties concerns under Reno’s tenure as just “extremism” or “miltia paranoia” were intellectual whores. The freepers who suddenly stopped worrying and learned to love the jackboots under Ashcroft are just as whorish. I have quite a bit of respect for people like Bob Barr on the right and Alexander Cockburn on the left who don’t like police statism from EITHER party.

  58. Kevin-

    I agree that there would be no Patriot Act if Gore were President. The right wing’s ability to mount effective opposition is one of the reasons why I believe there should be a Democratic President and a GOP Congress. I know, ideally we’d want libertarians in those offices, but as long as we’re stuck with the two parties of the present, that divided arrangement is the way to go.

    And it’s not just about civil liberties: Government spending has run amok under Bush. The GOP Congress won’t oppose his spending proposals, and Democrats in Congress love spending anyway. With a Democrat in the White House there would be more checks and balances against excessive spending. It would still happen, but the spending would at least grow more slowly.

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