In this past Thursday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, there was a very interesting question-and-answer period between Senator Dick Durbin and the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy. Senator Leahy proposed an amendment to curtail Patriot Act powers so that records of book purchases couldn’t be collected by the government unless the government could show that the people buying those books were (or were in some way connected to) a suspected terrorist or foreign agent. Senator Durbin asked whether Patriot Act Section 215 powers as they stand now might be used to sweep up all records of people in America who are reading books about the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms:
Richard Durbin: Would the gentleman yield for a question? I want to put your amendment in context, because we have had a long debate here ever since the Patriot Act passed about library records. There are strongly held feelings about the rights of libraries to continue to loan books and information to people and not be subjected to a sweeping investigation without particularity. As I understand the current law as it relates to libraries, before the government can launch an investigation of books that have been loaned, they have to demonstrate the investigation pertains to an agent of a foreign power, the activities of a suspected agent, or individuals in contact with or known to a suspect.
So your bill would establish this, that if there’s going to be a request for information from booksellers, that these three standards apply. Is that correct?
Patrick Leahy: Basically the same standards that we have applied for libraries, yes.
Dick Durbin: So my question to you is this. Let’s take a hypothetical where the government is seeking from Amazon.com information on all people who have requested information on books related to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, without specifying any individual who might have fit into your three-part test, without the specificity, is it my understanding that the information could be requested?
[45 second pause]
Patrick Leahy: That, I understand, may be hard to show as relevant to an investigation just to ask everybody who has ever asked for a book on the Second Amendment.
Dick Durbin: Well let me just ask you this. If there’s an assertion by the government that this is relevant to an investigation, there are no particularity standards until your amendment is adopted.
Patrick Leahy: That’s right.
Dick Durbin: So that could relate to a class of people, whether they’re requesting information about the Second Amendment or –
Patrick Leahy: Yes. There’s nothing in the law to stop then from doing it.
Does that sort of blanket, countrywide surveillance of reading habits bother you?
What comes next? Do we roll over for this sort of overweening government surveillance? Or do we protest?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions. What are you going to do about this?