November was rough for those hoping to weaken the strictures of the USA PATRIOT Act. Early in the month, Congressional negotiators dropped the Sanders amendment – language that would deny funding for searches of library, bookstore, and other business records – from a spending bill. On November 16, a Congressional conference committee mostly failed to adopt reader privacy provisions advocated by the American Library Association (ALA) and American Civil Liberties Union, among others. For the controversial Section 215, which makes it easier to search the above-mentioned records, the negotiators adopted a provision that requires review in seven years, rather than the four-year ‘sunset clause’ favored by the Senate, but less than the ten-year period favored by the House of Representatives. However, a coalition of Senators threatened a filibuster regarding the ‘sunset clause’ and approval was delayed.
The compromise would leave in place the lowered standards faced by FBI agents, who, without judicial review, can obtain National Security Letters (NSLs) to look at a broad range of electronic records. In fact, the conference committee report added a criminal penalty for a recipient’s noncompliance and a gag order that bars the recipient from ever discussing the order. Such NSLs have been at issue in a pending case involving the Library Connection, a Windsor, CT – based consortium, which has sued to overturn the gag order.
‘It is regrettable that the committee did not take the opportunity to restore essential privacy protections to library reading records and respond to the concerns of millions of Americans over the vastly overreaching powers of the USA PATRIOT Act,’ said ALA president Michael Gorman.