WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said Wednesday the FBI has not sought a single record from a library or business under a part of the Patriot Act widely criticized as opening Americans' reading habits or personal information to undue government scrutiny.
In a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) obtained by The Associated Press, Ashcroft said he decided to disclose the previously classified information to "counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation" surrounding section 215 of the anti-terrorism law.
"I know you share my concern that the public not be misled regarding the manner in which the U.S. Department of Justice, and the FBI (search) in particular, have been utilizing the authorities provided" in the law, Ashcroft wrote to Mueller.
"The number of times section 215 has been used to date is zero," Ashcroft wrote.
The decision, first revealed by Ashcroft in a telephone call earlier Wednesday to the president of the American Library Association, Carla Hayden of Baltimore, removes a veil of secrecy surrounding one of the most contentious provisions of the law passed a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We're very gratified that the American public is now going to know what is happening in public libraries," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the library association's Washington office. "This has given people pause, a sense of concern."
Critics have said the FBI's authority to obtain the records threatens the privacy and First Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons, as well as other businesses. Law enforcement officials say the power is rarely used, properly supervised by judges and essential to combat terror.
In his memo to Mueller, Ashcroft noted that all members of Congress have had access to the formerly secret information about use of the section 215 authority in the Patriot Act. Yet many continued to criticize the law, with some libraries even posting signs warning patrons that the FBI might check into their reading habits and others destroying records more frequently.
The American Civil Liberties Union and critical members of Congress said Ashcroft is taking a positive step by declassifying the FBI records. But they said the potential remains for the law to be abused.
"I hope that this decision indicates a new willingness to address public concerns about the Patriot Act in a forthright and honest manner, rather than ridiculing those who believe the law may not adequately protect our citizens' constitutional freedoms," said Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate vote against the Patriot Act.
Ashcroft's move follows a pair of speeches he delivered this week in which he denounced as "baseless hysteria" claims by the ACLU, library association and others that the Patriot Act allows the FBI to snoop unchecked into Americans' reading habits.
"The hysteria is ridiculous. Our job is not," Ashcroft said in those speeches.
Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, said Ashcroft's declassification decision appeared to be mostly public relations aimed at tackling the fallout from those speeches.
"Is this the beginning of the Justice Department being more accountable, or is this just a bone to throw to the librarians?" Murphy said. "I think the American people can see through that."
Ashcroft recently completed a 16-city tour to defend the Patriot Act as an essential part of the fight against terrorism. Just last week, President Bush asked Congress to approve new legal tools to combat terror, including expansion of a type of subpoena that does not require approval by a judge or grand jury.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, who is sponsoring legislation to exempt libraries and bookstores from the Patriot Act, said there is momentum in Congress to scale back the law. The Republican-controlled House recently voted against "sneak and peek" searches that allow for delay of notification of the target.
"The bottom line is not so much what may or may not have been done in the past, but what might be done in the future," said Sanders, I-Vt.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act does not specifically mention libraries or bookstores. But it permits the FBI to obtain secret warrants in foreign terrorism or intelligence investigations for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" from all types of businesses or other organizations.
Such warrants must be approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees investigations of individuals or groups in the United States believed to be foreign terrorists or spies. The individual who receives the subpoena is barred from disclosing that fact.