WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 — Attorney General John Ashcroft today accused the country's biggest library association and other critics of fueling "baseless hysteria" about the government's ability to pry into the public's reading habits.
In an unusually pointed attack as part of his latest speech in defense of the Bush administration's counterterrorism initiatives, Mr. Ashcroft mocked and condemned the American Library Association and other Justice Department critics for believing that the F.B.I. wants to know "how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel."
If he's coming after us so specifically, we must be having an impact.
American Library Association
The association, which has argued for months that the government's new antiterrorism powers risk encroaching on the privacy of library users, took some satisfaction from the broadside.
"If he's coming after us so specifically, we must be having an impact," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the library association's Washington office.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the department, said the speech was intended not as an attack on librarians, but on groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and politicians who he said had persuaded librarians to mistrust the government.
The American Librarian Association "has been somewhat duped by those who are ideologically opposed to the Patriot Act," Mr. Corallo said.
Mr. Ashcroft's remarks, he said, "should be seen as a jab at those who would mislead librarians and the general public into believing the absurd, that the F.B.I. is running around monitoring libraries instead of going after terrorists."
Mr. Ashcroft's speech was his 17th in the last month in defense of the sweeping counterterrorism act passed after the Sept. 11 attacks and under increasing criticism for those who contend that it gives the government too much power.
But in departing from his usual remarks, Mr. Ashcroft dwelled today much more expansively on the government's powers under the legislation to demand access to library records in searching for terrorists.
That issue has helped galvanize opposition to the act from libraries nationwide and from some 160 communities that have protested the law as too far-reaching.
It is not known how many times federal agents have actually used the law to gain access to library records because that information is classified. Even the association said it did not know because libraries served with demands for such records are bound by a gag order.
Mr. Ashcroft said critics had tried to persuade the public that the F.B.I. was monitoring libraries to "ask every person exiting the library, `Why were you at the library? What were you reading? Did you see anything suspicious?' "
The Justice Department, Mr. Ashcroft said, "has no interest in your reading habits. Tracking reading habits would betray our high regard for the First Amendment. And even if someone in government wanted to do so, it would represent an impossible workload and a waste of law enforcement resources."
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