WASHINGTON - Illustrating a reservoir of concern even among Republicans, the House voted yesterday to roll back a provision of the USA Patriot Act that, at least in theory, enabled terrorism investigators to check out the reading habits of patrons of libraries and bookstores.
The amendment scales back a sweeping provision in the terrorism-fighting law, known as Section 215, that allows investigators to obtain a wide range of business records and other "tangible things."
While the provision does not mention books, it has come to be known as "the library provision," out of concern by librarians and civil liberties groups that investigators could use it to pry into the records of book lovers across the United States, infringing on basic freedoms.
"The message of today is that every member of Congress and every American understands we have to do everything we can to protect the American people from terrorism. That is not the debate," said Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who was the amendment's lead proponent. "The debate is whether we can and must do that and protect the constitutional rights that make us a free people. That is what Congress voted for today."
The vote was 238-187, with 38 Republicans joining Sanders and 199 Democrats in support of the amendment, which was incorporated into legislation setting the fiscal 2006 budget for the Justice Department.
The amendment, in a single sentence, would bar the FBI from using funds to apply for a court order under the terrorism-fighting law requiring the production of circulation records, patron lists, book sales records or book customer lists.
Whether the amendment becomes law is far from clear. It has yet to be taken up in the Senate, and with the Republican leadership in Congress ardently opposed to any changes that might water down the Patriot Act, the measure faces an uphill fight.
Still, the margin of victory represented a setback for the Bush administration and underscores concern, even among conservatives, that parts of the Patriot Act give government too much power to reach into the private lives of individuals.
President Bush has vowed to veto the library move, which was also strongly opposed by the Justice Department.
The department has acknowledged that, as of March 30, Section 215 has never been used to obtain library records, but it says carving out special exemptions in the law would be unwise. It has pointed out that records from libraries and bookstores have been obtained in criminal investigations and have often turned out to be important evidence.
As an example, the department has mentioned that investigators subpoenaed a bookseller to obtain records showing that convicted Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph had purchased a book giving instructions on how to build a detonator that had been used in several bombings.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a leading critic of the terrorism law, including Section 215, said the vote was a good sign.
Sixteen provisions of the Patriot Act - including Section 215 - are due to expire at year-end. The Bush administration has proposed some minor adjustments in the law but has said that, in the main, the measures must all be renewed so that the country can be defended adequately against terrorism.
"It bodes well that the first vote Congress has taken on the Patriot Act this year has been in favor of liberty and freedom," said Gregory Nojeim, acting director of the ACLU Washington legislative office.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.