"THE USA PATRIOT ACT gives the government sweeping authority to monitor what books we read and buy." When that flat falsehood is being peddled by a national legislator, it's no wonder bookstores and libraries are circulating petitions to amend this fearful law, and ordinary American readers are signing them, in the earnest hope of rescuing our basic freedoms.
But Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is not alone in publicizing (on his website) this scurrilous rendition of the Patriot Act. The American Civil Liberties Union also propagates a caricature of the law as "setting the FBI loose on the American public." Here's a snippet from the ACLU's analysis of the relevant part of the statute, Section 215:
"For example, the FBI could spy on a person because they don't like the books she reads, or because they don't like the websites she visits. They could spy on her because she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy."
To say the Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to spy on people because of their taste in reading is like saying that equipping beat cops with night sticks authorizes the police to bludgeon old ladies who annoy them. Sure, a rogue element at the FBI can run amok. It could before the Patriot Act. It can after the Patriot Act--not by doing what the law authorizes, but by breaking the law.
Judge for yourself. Section 215 is very short. It has to do with record requests "for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." Such an investigation must be authorized by a federal court--the FISA court, specialized in foreign intelligence matters, an entity created by a Democratic Congress and Democratic president in 1978 and manned by normal federal judges assigned by the chief justice for seven-year terms.
Section 215 stipulates that the FBI's application for a court order "shall specify that the records concerned are sought for an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."
Just in case neither the FBI nor the authorizing court does its job properly, there is an oversight measure built into Section 215: Every six months, the attorney general must report to Congress how many requests for court orders have been made and how many granted. So far the number of searches of library and bookstore records reported under the Patriot Act: zero.
IT IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE, of course, that some piece of Section 215, or any other part of the Patriot Act for that matter, has been ill designed, perhaps too broadly tailored. It's possible, and the question deserves to be examined, and defects repaired. But the good people busy signing petitions--printed in patriotic red, white, and blue--at bookstores aren't being invited into that conversation. They're being cynically manipulated by demagogues who spread contempt for government.
Says Mark Corallo, chief spokesman for the Department of Justice, "You're scaring regular Americans into believing that their government is doing things that the government is neither inclined to do nor has the legal authority to do."
Britain's longest serving prime minister of modern times, Margaret Thatcher, used words with flair. She once called it "wicked" to suggest that those who opposed some particular Labour party social-uplift measure ipso facto didn't care about the poor. It is similarly wicked to suggest that those who see a need to provide the government with new investigative tools appropriate to the new security situation therefore are indifferent to the Constitution.
Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.