ACLU Applauds Introduction of Senate Bill to Fix Now Infamous "Section 215" of the USA PATRIOT Act

July 31, 2003 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed the introduction of Senate legislation that would roll back one of the most controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. The bill, the “”Library and Personal Records Privacy Act,”” would take aim at the infamous Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the government virtually unfettered access to personal data.

“”What we choose to read or review on the Internet should not be the government’s concern,”” said Timothy H. Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”Libraries under the PATRIOT Act cease to be a forum for open discussion and a fountain of unfettered information. Many patrons of libraries and bookstores are unaware that their habits could become the target of government surveillance. In a free society, such monitoring is odious and unnecessary.””

Introduced by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), the new bill would not repeal Section 215 powers altogether, but would instead require the government to show some individual suspicion to obtain and review personal records library and bookstore records.

Section 215 has stirred up considerable controversy as it grants law enforcement the ability to obtain – without an ordinary criminal subpoena or search warrant and without probable cause – a court order giving them access to any records or “”tangible thing,”” which include records from libraries, booksellers, doctors, financial institutions and Internet service providers.

Moreover, it imposes a gag order on librarians, bookstores and doctors-barring them from telling anyone, including their clients, that their records have been reviewed by law enforcement. The section is broad and structured so that ordinary American citizens may be targets of intelligence investigations. The standard that must be met for an order to be issued is merely that the government says the records are “”sought for”” a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The Feingold bill would require the government to show “”specific and articulable facts”” that warrant an individual being suspected of being “”an agent of a foreign power.”” A bill protecting library and bookstore patrons was introduced in the House by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and has a number of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle but was blocked procedurally from coming to the House floor last Tuesday.

The Feingold bill follows on the heels of the House’s adoption of a measure offered by Rep. Butch Otter (R-ID) last week that would effectively prohibit any implementation of another controversial section of the PATRIOT Act, Section 213, which permits federal agents to obtain “”sneak and peek warrants.””

The Feingold Amendment introduction also follows the filing of the first-ever lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the PATRIOT Act. The lawsuit was filed yesterday by the ACLU on behalf of six advocacy and community groups from across the country whose members and clients believe they are currently the targets of investigations because of their ethnicity, religion and political associations. The challenge targets Section 215 of the law, which vastly expands the power of FBI agents to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of innocent people in the United States, including citizens and permanent residents.

“”We are encouraged that Members of Congress are taking steps to restore the privacy safeguards that were undermined by portions of the PATRIOT Act,”” Edgar said. “”The introduction of Senator Feingold’s bill and the passage of Rep. Otter’s amendment signal that Congress is taking seriously the broad, grassroots movement against the excesses of the PATRIOT Act.””

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release