House Votes to Limit Patriot Act

House Votes to Limit Patriot Act Rules (AP)

In a slap at President Bush, lawmakers voted Wednesday to block the Justice Department and the FBI from using the Patriot Act to peek at library records and bookstore sales slips. The House voted 238-187 despite a veto threat from Bush to block the part of the anti-terrorism law that allows the government to investigate the reading habits of terror suspects.


Supporters of the Patriot Act countered that the rules on reading records are a potentially useful tool in finding terrorists and argued that the House was voting to make libraries safe havens for them. “If there are terrorists in libraries studying how to fly planes, how to put together biological weapons, how to put together chemical weapons, nuclear weapons … we have to have an avenue through the federal court system so that we can stop the attack before it occurs,” said Rep. Tom Feeney (news, bio, voting record), R-Fla.

Last year, a similar provision was derailed by a 210-210 tie after several Republicans were pressured to switch votes.

In the meantime, a number of libraries have begun disposing of patrons’ records quickly so they won’t be available if sought under the law.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress in April that the government has never used the provision to obtain library, bookstore, medical or gun sale records. But when asked whether the administration would agree to exclude library and medical records from the law, Gonzales demurred. “It should not be held against us that we have exercised restraint,” he said.

While I find many of the measures that have been enacted since 9-11 to be blatantly unconstitutional and am amazed that they don’t have every red blooded American up in arms, the ability of the FBI to check the library records of suspected terrorists is not one of them. The fact that the provision has never been used is pretty telling: Federal law enforcement officers are not interested in snooping through library records without an whole lot of indication that they’re going to find something.

Meanwhile, we have poorly trained federal agents routinely searching little old ladies who have raised no suspicion whatsoever simply because they have purchased an airline ticket.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. markus says:

    But isn’t the fact that it has never been used before (despite 400 “terrorist” cases) [SCNR] also a good reason to kill an extension of state power into people’s private lives?
    I mean, we are rightly concerned about state attempts to intrude into people’s lives in other cases (the prime one obviously being guns) and here we have an extension that apparently not even the one’s doing the job find useful. (My best guess as to why they don’t is information overload.) Looks to me like the only people benefitting from it are those who want to cover their polictical behinds.

  2. Brian J. says:

    Why would an old lady buy an airline ticket but to attempt to hijack the plane and crash it into a nuclear reactor, or, since Americans fear nuclear power, a wind farm?

  3. Kent says:

    I dunno, James. I think the harm done by the Patriot Act pales in comparison with the harm done by McCain-Feingold.

  4. Scott in CA says:

    Funny, I haven’t noticed the stink of fascism anywhere. The wall between intelligence and criminal investigations should have been opened long ago. It’s not just the jihadis, but also groups like gangs, sex traffickers, etc that should be investigated using everything we have. And living here in the Bay Area, of course, I am constantly reminded about the octupus-like reach of the Bushitler Minions. Never to be outdone in their vigilance agianst government authority, the librarians at the Santa Cruz Public Library have been shredding their borrowing records daily lest the evil John Ashcroft (sorry, Alberto) come in and arrest all the old hippies checking out back copies of High Times. The world is saved.