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St. Paul, Minn. — Federal government officials say a contentious section of the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act won't result in the FBI snooping into your library borrowing and bookstore purchases, but critics in Minnesota and nationally remain convinced that someday it could.
Those concerns exist in part because federal officials have said little, if anything, about how and when the 2001 law might be used. If the FBI were to search a library or bookstore, it's not clear what it would be looking for and, given the different practices of booksellers and libraries, what it might find.
"There was never any need for libraries to be included in the Patriot Act," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington, D.C., office.
In fact, the law makes no mention of libraries or bookstores. But the U.S. Justice Department has acknowledged that libraries are among the organizations whose business records might come under scrutiny, Sheketoff said.
The U.S. House of Representatives failed July 8 to roll back the government's ability to seek library and bookstore records under the Patriot Act. U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders, and independent from Vermont, sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have prohibited funds from being used to get court orders requesting "library circulation records, library patron lists, library Internet records, book sales records, or book customer lists."
The amendment seemed sure to pass, but House Republicans extended the voting time, giving them a chance to convince enough representatives to change their votes. The amendment failed on a 210-210 vote.
Sanders also has sponsored the Freedom to Read Protection Act, which would "exempt bookstores and libraries from orders requiring the production of any tangible things for certain foreign intelligence investigations, and for other purposes." Speaking on the House floor in March 2003, Sanders said librarians and booksellers fear people are censoring their library use and book purchases because of concerns about government surveillance.
Historically, Sheketoff said, libraries and law enforcement officials have had a good working relationship. In the case of Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, law enforcement officials were able to retrieve information about their suspect because of books he had checked out and never returned.
But the Patriot Act goes too far, Sheketoff said.
"We completely reject the contention that terrorists are relying on the libraries," she said.
While politicians and civil liberties advocates continue to wrestle with the Patriot Act, law enforcement officials are wondering what the fuss is about.
"This whole library thing has become an urban legend," said Special Agent Paul McCabe, spokesman for the FBI's Minneapolis division.
This whole library thing has become an urban legend.
Opponents of the Patriot Act are using the legislation to try to score points against the Bush administration, said Mark Corallo, the Justice Department's public affairs director in Washington, D.C.
For years, the FBI has been able to search library and bookstore records as part of a criminal investigation. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to demand "tangible things" such as books, records and documents in its investigation of terrorism and spying.
Although it needs a special court order to execute a search, the FBI doesn't need to inform the subject of the records that it is seeking the information. The law also forbids those who are asked for the records from telling anyone.
Up until October 2003, when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft bowed to questions from Congress and took the unusual step of declassifying information about the Patriot Act's use, Section 215 had not been invoked, the Justice Department's Mark Corallo said. But whether it's been invoked since then remains classified.
McCabe said it's hard to say what information the FBI might seek in a Patriot Act search, because the search would be case-specific. Library and bookstore records, Corallo added, "are a type of record that could -- could -- hypothetically be requested."
As the House considered the Sanders amendment earlier this month, the Justice Department told Congress of a case where a suspected al-Qaida operative used an Internet connection in a public library to communicate with other terrorists.
"That's the kind of thing we'd like to know," Corallo said.
Federal officials point out that Section 215 forbids the kind of "fishing expedition" critics fear, specifically prohibiting use of the Patriot Act solely to investigate activities protected by the First Amendment.
If the FBI did request a search under Section 215, it is unclear what the bureau would find. Most libraries in Minnesota, for example, probably don't hold on to records of what patrons have checked out.
"The only reason we keep track of what a person has checked out is so we can get it back," said Bill Sozansky, president of the Minnesota Library Association and director of the University of Minnesota, Duluth library. Once a book is returned, the record is purged.
Similarly, the Plum Creek Library System in southwest Minnesota keeps most records temporarily.
"The automated system we have has a record of everything you've checked out, but only while it's checked out," said Richard MacDonald, the system director.
At a minimum, the library needs to keep track of a patron's name and address, so it knows who has checked out a book and where they live.
That libraries don't keep the information, Corallo said, "almost proves the whole politics" of Patriot Act opponents.
The circulation software used by Plum Creek also has the ability to optionally track a patron's loan history, in case he or she wants to recall what they've read. Librarians in the nine-county Plum Creek system are scheduled in September to consider language that would warn patrons that law enforcement and government officials could get access to that information, MacDonald said.
The state's data practices law doesn't allow libraries to reveal what patrons have checked out, according the Minnesota Library Association,'s Bill Sozansky.
But the USA Patriot Act supersedes state privacy laws. And, Sozansky warned, "even if you have purged something, is it really purged?" The FBI might still be able to retrieve information that appears to have been erased from a computer.
Among booksellers, differences exist in the kind of data kept on customers and their purchases.
Customers who pay with a credit card at Micawber's Books in St. Paul have their transactions linked to specific book purchases. Micawber's also has a computerized frequent buyer program, which tracks customers and the specific books they've bought. Customers who pay with a check might be protected, because Micawber's doesn't link specific purchases to the checks. Cash transactions would leave no paper trail.
But if the FBI brought a court order to Micawber's Books in St. Paul, it would first have to get past co-owner Hans Weyandt.
"I would fight it to whatever extent I could," Weyandt said.
Browsing the book bins outside the store, Brigitte Edstrom of Mendota Heights and Ginger Simek of St. Paul agreed they wouldn't want the government prying into their reading habits.
"If I go to the library to check out something about a medical issue that's of interest to me, I don't think that's anything anyone should know about," Edstrom said.
At May Day Books in Minneapolis, customers may be even more protected. No link between a customer and their purchase is kept, said volunteer coordinator Earl Balfour.
"That information is lost when you go out the door," Balfour said. May Day Books only accepts cash and checks.
A spokeswoman for Barnes and Noble, which operates about 20 stores in Minnesota, declined to discuss what data the company collects about customers.
"I assure you that Barnes and Noble will continue to support the right of every bookseller to sell every book, in or out of print," spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said in an e-mail, "and the right of our customers to buy whatever books they want, without the fear that their transactions will be disclosed."