July 13, 2004 – Members of the book industry and civil liberties advocates are scratching their heads over why House Republican leaders decided to bully their way out of passing a bipartisan piece of legislation intended to secure the rights of due process and privacy of library patrons and bookstore customers.
"It should make people ask, what are they trying to stop and what are they trying to cover up," says Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a clearinghouse for activism and information on the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures civil libertarians see as infringements on civil liberties in the "War on Terror."
House Amendment 652, which would have been attached to the $39.8 billion appropriations bill, would have rolled back Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Section 215 expanded federal law enforcement officialsâ€™ ability to secretly comb "business records," including library book and computer records, as well as bookstores' business customer databanks without having to convince a judge that a crime has been or is being committed. Agents merely have to designate such a search contingent to a terrorism investigation. Bookstore employees and librarians are also barred from speaking publicly about any search conducted under the requirements of Section 215.
Backers of the measure, which included lawmakers from all parties, as well as library and book sellersâ€™ associations and civil liberties advocates, said the amendment was important to prevent peopleâ€™s reading habits from broad government scrutiny.
The night before the July 8 vote, the White House condemned outright any amendment that would "weaken" the Patriot Act, and declared the President would veto the entire bill if the amendment passed.
Even more dramatically, a short letter from the Justice Department addressed to House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) materialized among House members on the day of the vote. It stated that "as recently as this past winter and spring, a member of a terrorist group closely affiliated with al-Qaida" used library internet services. The letter, according to the Associated Press and a press release from Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT), mentioned no specifics beyond that. Sanders is one of the measureâ€™s main supporters.
"I do have a copy on my desk of the letter the DOJ circulated, and it really is very weak," Talanian told The NewStandard. "It could be President Bush's veto threat worked, but I can't get inside their heads, or the President's head."
In addition, House leadership held the vote on the amendment open an extra 23 minutes, long enough for ten Republicans, some of whom occupy the most conservative wing of the party, to change their "Yes" votes to "No" on the amendment. The final tally on the amendment was 210-210, with a majority needed to win. The appropriations bill passed the House without the amendment.
"As we've always said, this is not a partisan issue. They've taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, and they should stand by that," says Talanian of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
The amendment was "a very narrowly-tailored amendment to protect First Amendment Rights," according to Jeanne Herrick-Stare, the Senior Fellow for Civil Liberties and Human Rights for the non-partisan Quaker group the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She also called it a slimmed-down version of the Freedom to Read Act, introduced in 2003 by Rep. Sanders. Despite having over 140 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, the Freedom to Read Act has languished in committee for over a year.
"I was shocked at hearing [Virginia Republican] Representative [Frank] Wolf saying we need hearings on this matter," she said. Wolf took to the floor before the vote to argue strongly against the amendment. "Representative Sanders has been asking, begging, pleading for hearings on the bill."
"The President has gone way out on a limb supporting the Patriot Act," says Herrick-Stare. "A vote supporting this amendment [may have been] an embarrassment to the President's very public stance on the Patriot Act."
Talanian said legislation that would have passed on its merits was squelched. Now, says, Talanian, the constituents, rather than their political representatives, will have to take the lead on this issue.