Remember the Patriot Act?
How could librarian Peter Chase ever forget. In 2005, Mr. Chase, the director of the Plainville, Conn., public library and then-vice president of a consortium of 26 Connecticut libraries, received an FBI demand for library patron records via a National Security Letter authorized under the Patriot Act. The FBI also imposed a gag order prohibiting him from speaking to anyone about the demand - including Congress, when the Patriot Act was up for reauthorization in 2005.
Now, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Chase has finally won the legal battle and has torn the Bush administration's tape from his mouth. So he's speaking out, and this is what he has to say: "The government was telling Congress that it didn't use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one's rights had been violated. I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation."
Only 45 days after Sept. 11, in an atmosphere of overwhelming fear and uncertainty, Congress rushed to enact the Patriot Act. The law unconstitutionally authorized unprecedented secret spying into our private lives without evidence of wrongdoing and with no checks to correct abuses. The Patriot Act authorized the FBI to send such letters to demand "any tangible thing" - library records, financial records, medical records, books, letters, you name it.
Only three recipients have challenged the gag orders that accompany these letters, and two of them are librarians. Since the Patriot Act, the number of "demand letters" and gag orders of the kind Mr. Chase and others received has increased astronomically. The Justice Department's inspector general reports that between 2003 and 2006, the FBI has issued nearly 200,000 such letters.
Yet seven years later, despite mounting reports of abuse, there is little evidence that the Patriot Act has made America safer from terrorism. Most recently, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine conducted two audits of the FBI's authority to demand business records under Section 215, the "library provision" of the Patriot Act. In testimony late last month, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "we found no instance in which the information obtained from a Section 215 order resulted in a major case development."
Keeping America safe and free requires an overhaul of this deeply flawed law. The "library provision" - which also affects many other kinds of personal records - and similar dragnet search and seizure provisions must be narrowed to ensure they apply only to those suspected of terrorism and terrorist affiliation. The courts must regain the right to independent, meaningful review of these operations to check abuses. Congress should get regular reports and must review the security efforts' effectiveness. And the courts must enforce First Amendment oversight of gag orders, so that the FBI does not unilaterally silence Americans.
Key portions of the Patriot Act are set to expire. A group of U.S. senators has introduced the Justice Act (S. 1686) to end unnecessary civil liberties abuses under the Patriot Act and to restore constitutional safeguards to U.S. national security efforts. This time around, Maryland's congressional leaders have important roles to play on the Patriot Act, as they now occupy key positions in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in the majority party. Marylanders who believe security and liberty are not opposing goals should urge our leaders to shepherd through reforms included in the Justice Act.
In particular, Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin occupies a key leadership role as the sponsor of another Patriot Act reform bill, which he calls a "starting point for debate" in the necessary Patriot Act overhaul. And as chairman of the subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Cardin is in a position to add more critical constitutional protections. It is vital that these reforms are included in the bill.
The first patriots acted in justified outrage over British warrants granting broad, intrusive search and seizure powers over colonists. Modern-day patriots must act now to renew the constitutional promise of liberty bestowed upon us by our patriotic forebears. We can - and must - be both safe and free.
Susan Goering is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.