The government is getting closer to a national book list. Of sorts.
The Republican-led House bowed to White House pressure and defeated an effort to block funding for Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the part of the law that allows the government to investigate people's reading habits. The victory by the Patriot Act defenders continues an unnecessary erosion of everyone's rights.
The question of rights vs. security will be the subject of debate in this country for the foreseeable future. Everyone agrees that we live in a different world than existed on Sept. 10, 2001, and that the government is going to need added flexibility to fight terrorism. But the Bush administration, especially its attorney general, John Ashcroft, appears much too willing to trample on Americans' rights in the name of security.
The fact that conservative Republicans joined with Democrats in fighting this part of the law shows the range of opposition to this administration's willingness to intrude into people's private lives in the name of security. What Section 215 really amounts to is an effort to skirt traditional checks and balances on executive power. Prior to the Patriot Act, investigators who wanted to check on book sales or library records, for example, could do so by getting a judge to issue a subpoena or search warrant. Under the Patriot Act, federal officials don't have to bother with that.
"Libraries have always responded to law enforcement," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association. "Law enforcement has always been able to go to a judge, demonstrate probable cause and get a court order. There was no need for Section 215 in the Patriot Act."
Going through the courts would not jeopardize legitimate law enforcement activity, nor would it put any investigation in jeopardy. But it would allow democracy to flourish.
It appeared as though the House was ready to pass the amendment blocking Section 215. But the GOP leadership kept the vote open for 23 minutes after the normal 15-minute time limit expired. That was enough time to persuade about 10 Republicans who initially supported the provision to change their votes. That resulted in a 210-210 tie, with a majority needed for passage.
It's going to take a new Congress in January to do the right thing. More than 330 communities in this country have passed resolutions opposing parts of the Patriot Act, said Sheketoff. The 210 members of Congress who voted for the amendment were clearly listening to the American people.
There are parts of the Patriot Act that have made reasonable inroads into privacy rights in the name of security, such as giving federal officials more leeway in setting up wiretaps for different phones while keeping an individual suspect under surveillance.
But delving into Americans' reading habits without establishing reasonable cause is a step too far, and the next Congress ought to fix it.