L. Neil Smith's
Number 218, April 7, 2003


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Millions of Americans are concerned that the USA PATRIOT Act and other legislation enacted since September 11, 2001, take away fundamental rights and liberties without making us more secure from terrorism. Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act concerns many of us. It eliminates several important safeguards that prevent law enforcement officials from engaging in fishing expeditions in bookstore and library records, such as the books someone has read or purchased or the websites he or she has visited if the government believes that the person may have information relevant to their investigations, even if the person is not suspected of committing a crime. The request for a court order authorizing the search is heard by a judge in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in a secret proceeding, which prevents a librarian or bookseller from objecting on First Amendment grounds. The court order contains a gag provision that forbids a bookseller or librarian from alerting anyone to the fact that a search has occurred.

Under Section 215 the FBI does not need to ...

  • Show probable cause, nor even reasonable grounds to believe that the person whose records it seeks is engaged in criminal activity or

  • Have any suspicion that the subject of the investigation is a foreign power or agend of a foreign power.

Libraries and booksellers report that Section 215 is having a chilling effect on many patrons who are concerned that their reading and research habits will be scrutinized by the federal government. Information from a University of Ilinois survey of libraries nationwide reveals that patrons' fears are not unfounded. Since 9-11, the federal government has visited over 175 libraries looking for information.


March 30, 2003
Nancy Talanian, Director
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
P.O. Box 60591
Florence, MA 01062
Telephone: 413-582-0110
Email: bordc.web@verizon.net
Web: www.bordc.org

Documents obtained through the ACLU's Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit suggest that the Attorney General is aggressively wielding a disturbing power that — without the approval of a judge — allows the government to force banks, Internet service providers, telephone companies and credit agencies to turn over their customers' records.

The government has been employing "National Security Letters" — authorized by Attorney General Ashcroft or a delegate, with no judicial approval — to "compel the production of a substantial amount of relevant information."

This power can be used to obtain records about anyone living in the United States without probable cause that the person has committed any crime. Furthermore, entities that are forced to turn over records are prohibited from disclosing to their customers — or to anyone else — that the FBI has demanded the records.

The government has refused to say how extensively it is using its authority to issue the letters. But the length of the blacked-out lists of National Security Letters received in response to our FOIA request suggests that the government is using this power more extensively than other surveillance powers — which require court approval — granted under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Visit the special web feature on the ACLU's PATRIOT FOIA case, including samples of the blacked-out documents and government memos describing the new powers.


American Civil Liberties Union
125 Broad Street, 18th Floor
New York, New York 10004-2400


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