WASHINGTON - The U.S. House of Representatives on
Wednesday defied President Bush by approving a measure making
it harder for federal agents to secretly gather information on
people's library reading habits and bookstore purchases.
The House voted 238-187 to scale back the government's
powers to conduct secret investigations that were authorized by
the Patriot Act, a post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism law.
"We can fight terrorism without undermining basic
constitutional rights. That's what the message of today is
about," said Rep. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who
pushed the measure through the House with the support of 38
The White House has warned Congress that any weakening of
the Patriot Act would prompt senior advisers to recommend that
Bush veto the $57.5 billion bill to fund activities next year
for the Justice Department and other federal agencies, which
now contains Sanders' amendment.
The Senate has not yet debated its version of the bill.
Under the Patriot Act, federal law enforcement authorities
can get permission from a special court to investigate what
books people buy at bookstores or borrow from libraries, even
if they are not suspected of committing any crime.
If the House measure becomes law, which is still a long way
off, authorities would have to revert to the more traditional
method of convincing federal grand juries of likely criminal
activities before starting such investigations.
Civil libertarians said there was no evidence the
government had ever used this security provision. But they
argued the law presents potential threats to privacy and was
SAVE HAVENS FOR TERRORISTS
Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, in a letter
to Congress dated on Tuesday, said the law has been used to
obtain records of driver's licenses, apartment leases and
credit cards, and that the administration has used it
"judiciously and responsibly."
Bookstores and libraries, Moschella wrote, "should not be
carved out as safe havens for terrorists and spies, who have,
in fact, used public libraries to do research and communicate
with their co-conspirators."
Last year the House defeated a similar proposal offered by
Sanders. This year's version deleted references to material
read on the Internet and would also maintain federal agents'
ability to more easily scrutinize business records that could
point to suspicious activities.
"The simple truth is that the FBI could spy on a person
because they don't like the books she reads, or because she
wrote a letter to the editor critical of a governmental
policy," Sanders said.
"Parents want to know that just because their kid is
researching the life of Osama bin Laden, or studying terrorism,
that that fact should not place the student on a government
list or make anyone think that he/she is sympathetic to
terrorism," he said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, argued
the current law could help federal law enforcement pick up the
trail of someone plotting a chemical, biological, nuclear or
conventional attack on the United States.
"You all seem to want to wait until the crime is committed
and then you can use your criminal law to get at it. We want to
detect and prevent it," Shays said.
© Copyright 2005 Reuters Ltd