By Alan Elsner
Thu Apr 28, 7:07 PM ET
Congress must keep U.S. libraries from becoming terrorist "havens" by renewing legislation that allows authorities to seize library and bookstore records, Bush administration officials testified on Thursday.
"Libraries should not be carved out as safe havens for terrorists and spies. We know for a fact that terrorists and spies use public libraries," said Ken Wainstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
Wainstein appeared before the House of Representatives subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security to support the Bush administration's drive to renew provisions of the USA Patriot Act which have been sharply criticized by civil-liberties advocates.
The act was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and 15 of its provisions, including the library and bookstore measure, are scheduled to expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews them.
The so-called library provision was narrow in scope, Wainstein said. It could only be used "to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person" and to "protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities," he said.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has said there has been no substantiated allegation of abuse of the law since its enactment. He said the library provision, which applies to a wide range of business and personal records as well as libraries, has been used 35 times since September 2003, but never for library, bookstore, medical or gun-sale records.
Still, civil-liberties advocates and some lawmakers have called for changes to the law and criticized the government for failing to release enough information about how it has been applied. Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (news, bio, voting record) said this week there should be more public disclosure.
James Baker, the Justice Department's intelligence counsel, told the subcommittee that last year a member of a group tied to al Qaeda used the Internet from a public library to communicate with fellow members. He said the government had no interest in targeting ordinary citizens because of the books they read or the Web sites they visit.
9/11 HIJACKERS SEEN IN LIBRARIES
Wainstein said three of the Sept. 11 hijackers were spotted using a library in Florida, while other hijackers booked their airline tickets for the fatal day through a computer in a public library in New Jersey.
But Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union told the House subcommittee the provision could allow the government to easily obtain records relating to thousands of Americans who had nothing to do with terrorism.
The provision represented "serious and chilling effects ... on the exercise of basic freedoms," he said.
The House panel also heard testimony on another provision in the act which allows the government to obtain "roving surveillance orders" against suspected terrorists or spies.
They allow the government to wiretap every phone line, mobile communication device or Internet connection a suspect may use without having to identify the suspect by name. The law is intended to counter terrorists who frequently switch phones. Previously, the authorities had receive a separate court order for every individual telephone they wanted to monitor.
Nojeim said the government should be forced to identify either the suspect or the communications device, as in the case in criminal cases.