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The nation's attorney general is on the ropes and swinging wildly.


THE PATRIOT ACT, ROUND TEN John Ashcroft is fighting out of his weight class. Compared to your local librarian, our U.S. Attorney General is a pipsqueak, a flyweight. Last week in Memphis, Ashcroft revealed himself to be utterly ignorant of the principles of civil rights. In the process, he managed to insult every librarian in the country. Don’t worry, his roundhouse punches just glanced off the librarians, whose counterpunches landed squarely on Mr. Ashcroft’s glass jaw. Speaking to police and prosecutors on September 18, Ashcroft claimed that reports declassified last week proved that his Justice Department had never yet used the U.S. Patriot Act to monitor the records of bookstores and libraries. “No offense to the American Library Association,” he said, but the FBI and others assigned to seek out terrorists “just don’t care” about the reading habits of the average American. He went on to say, “The charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air built on misrepresentation; supported by unfounded fear; held aloft by hysteria.” So now, according to Mr. Ashcroft, librarians who are worried about the federal government checking what books you read are “hysterics.” (No offense.) And those of us worried that if we take out a chemistry book the FBI might think we’re building a bomb or if we take out the Koran they might think we’re members of Al Qaeda--well, we’re obviously in the grip of “unfounded fear” and “hysteria.” (No offense.) Once again, Mr. Ashcroft has utterly missed the point. As many commentators have patiently tried to explain to him--we must, after all, talk to him as one talks to a punch-drunk fighter--the point is not whether federal authorities have yet started checking what we read; the point is that the U.S. Patriot Act gives those authorities the right to monitor what we read. Giving anyone that right is exactly what’s wrong, Mr. Ashcroft. If we are hysterics, then you, sir, are a dangerous dimwit. (No offense.) Ashcroft and George W. Bush say it is our patriotic duty to trust them--trust that they care only about preventing terrorism, trust that they won’t start snooping in our credit card accounts or our emails or our library’s computer records, trust that the only people they care about are suspicious people--terrorists. (Of course, they never talk about the number of innocent people whose library records they might sift through to find a terrorist.) What Bush and Ashcroft refuse to acknowledge is the central principle of American democracy: Never trust those in power. It is that principle that is at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. It is why we have what are called “check and balances.” You have heard of those, Mr. Ashcroft? Never trust those in power. That is why so many of us “hysterics” have such an “unfounded fear” of Section 215 of the U.S. Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand “any relevant tangible item (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)” from any person or business or, yes, library in the supposed hunt for terrorists. And it is why we’re worried that those businesses and libraries are then bound by law to keep silent about any such demands, thereby cutting the press--the fourth check and balance of democratic government--out of the loop. Never trust those in power. J. Edgar Hoover once asked us to trust him in his hunt for Communists, Mr. Ashcroft, and Richard Nixon asked us to trust his version of Watergate. Many people did. Then Nixon’s enemies list was revealed, and it turned out that Hoover was recording the bedroom conversations of such national “threats” as Martin Luther King Jr. One reason we don’t trust you, Mr. Ashcroft, is that you have a history of misleading us. For example, you failed last week to explain why one of your own assistant attorneys general, Daniel Bryant, said in December 2002 that federal agents had in fact sought information from libraries as part of terrorism investigations. Or why Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said in March of 2003 that libraries had indeed become targets of federal surveillance. Or why yet another assistant attorney general, Viet Dinh, declared in May of this year that government agents had visited at least 50 libraries as part of terrorism investigations. Did those agents visit the libraries to check out Charlotte’s Web, Mr. Ashcroft? Even this week, you carefully avoided saying whether the Justice Department had used another, even more sinister, tool to look at our library records. This tool is called a “national security letter.” It allows terrorism investigators to look at our records without so much as a nod from a judge. It is an open warrant for searches. Have you used NSLs to check our libraries, Mr. Ashcroft? You refused to say. And now Mr. Bush, your boss, wants to expand the powers of his budding police state, allowing all kinds of searches without judicial oversight of any kind. This is Patriot Act II, which Bush announced earlier in September. It would allow federal agents to conduct any kind of search without a judge approving it, through the use of something called an “administrative subpoena”--which is a kind of last-minute, who-has-time-for-a-judge pass for federal agents to search for whatever they want whenever they want wherever they want. All this, of course, is in the name of The War on Terrorism, which under this administration has become an all-out war on our privacy. So how have the librarians handled these attacks? Ah, they continue to float like butterflies, sting like bees. They “welcomed” last week’s declassified documents, they said, pointedly noting that “[a]s librarians, we understand the importance of open access” to government information. Take that, Mr. Ashcroft. The librarians also gently noted that if the Justice Department has not needed to visit libraries in the war on terrorism since 9/11, then obviously there is no need to investigate libraries and so there would be no harm in exempting library records from searches in the future. The librarians reminded Americans about Patriot Act II and those “administrative subpoenas” which would allow sudden library searches and the seizure of records without warrants. They suggested that citizens write their congressmen urging support of “Freedom to Read” legislation sponsored by Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which protects library records from police-state eyes. They noted that 48 states already have such legislation, which the Patriot Acts would try to supersede, and they have put the American Civil Liberties Union in their corner with a lawsuit against Section 215. Whop! Bam! Pow! This round goes to the librarians. In the last month, Ashcroft has staggered from city to city in a free-swinging effort to save his own reputation. The Patriot Act has made him the most powerful attorney general since the Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I, but taking on the librarians was a mistake. When it comes to integrity, intelligence and credibility, Mr. Ashcroft, you’re not in their class, and the American people know it.

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