Published on Thursday, July 8, 2004 by Agence France Presse
White House Moves to Protect Right to Spy on Readers
WASHINGTON - The White House has gone to preventive war -- to protect the US government's newly-acquired right to spy on readers as part of counterterrorism investigations, promising to veto a multibillion-dollar spending bill if these powers are curtailed.
The shot across the bow was fired Wednesday, ahead of a widely anticipated amendment by Representative Bernie Sanders that would prevent Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government agents from using a secret federal intelligence court to gain access to the reading records of library or bookstore patrons as part of counterterrorism probes.
"We plan to introduce it on the House floor Thursday," Joel Barkin, spokesman for the independent lawmaker, told AFP.
If passed, the measure would be attached to a nearly 40-billion-dollar appropriations bill funding the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State in fiscal 2005.
But the White House will have none of it. Moving to nip the idea in the bud, the presidential Office of Management and Budget made clear it would rather see the whole appropriations bill die than allow changes to the USA Patriot Act.
"If legislation were presented to the president that includes any provision that forces the courts to allow notice to criminal suspects before a search warrant is executed, the president's senior advisors would recommend that the president veto the bill," the office said in a statement.
"If any other amendment that would weaken the USA Patriot Act were adopted and presented to the president for his signature," the statement added, "the president's senior advisors would recommend a veto."
Passed by Congress less than two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act gives the FBI broader surveillance and wiretapping powers to hunt down suspected terrorists while streamlining oversight procedures.
But civil rights advocates insist the measure has also enabled the FBI to gain access to medical, library and student records without a warrant or probable cause, a charge law enforcement officials say is unjustified.
According to Sanders, over 300 US municipalities, the governments of four states and dozens of library, publishing and privacy rights organizations oppose various sections of the act, which comes up for renewal at the end of next year.
The Vermont legislator has been one the most persistent congressional crusaders for individual privacy rights.
In March 2003, he introduced the so-called Freedom to Read Protection Act, which he says now has the support of over 140 members of Congress. Its key provisions will migrate into the amendment to be introduced on Thursday, according to Barkin.
Shortly after the White House issued its warning, Sanders said he and other Americans want to fight terrorism vigorously, but they do not want the government monitoring their reading habits.
"How can the president say that we are a beacon of freedom when he is working to cut back the very freedoms that Americans have fought and died for?" the lawmaker asked in a statement.
© Copyright 2004 AFP