JIM LEHRER: Libraries and the Patriot Act, Spencer Michels reports.
SPENCER MICHELS: Santa Cruz, California, is a beachfront college town south of San Francisco, which often elects progressives to local office. Right now, this town's library and bookstores are engaged in a struggle over the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
SPOKESPERSON: Hello. How are you doing?
SPENCER MICHELS: On a recent weekend at the public library, college students checked out the most controversial books they could find, including "The Anarchist's Cookbook," which contains instructions for making bombs. The group checkout was a protest against the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the FBI to more easily examine library records in their hunt for foreign terrorists.
ADAM SPITTLER, Student: I've found myself trying to circumvent the library system because of fear of... a fear of going on some record.
CAROLYN RIGGS, Student: Your name could go on an FBI database, and they could follow all kinds of activity, your Internet activity.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Patriot Act, which was approved overwhelmingly in congress following 9/11, expanded the FBI's authority in terrorism investigations. Now, in addition to looking at records from transportation companies and storage facilities, agents are empowered to check records in various businesses, including public libraries and bookstores. This was in response to the discovery that the World Trade Center hijackers used computers in Florida public libraries to communicate. Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying to Congress on the act, justified the FBI's new powers.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I believe the American people expect us to be able to pursue terrorists with the same intensity that we pursue Gianni Versace's killer, the Unabomber, the other kinds of criminal activity. So as it relates to the privacy of American citizens, far... I think the protections are superior in the Patriot Act than they are in other arenas. It's a limited approach. It's safeguarded by judicial supervision.
SPENCER MICHELS: That supervision consists of a secret federal intelligence surveillance court in Washington which must approve FBI terrorism and intelligence searches.
The American Library Association, concerned about civil and privacy rights, voted to oppose sections of the act. Santa Cruz librarian Anne Turner has posted notices telling library users that their privacy cannot be guaranteed because of the new law, and that under that law, they cannot legally be notified if federal agents obtain information about them.
ANNE TURNER: What's at stake here is the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States, not to mention... which is the freedom to read. And what the Patriot Act has done is to give the government new power to subpoena library and bookstore records without having just cause-- you know, specific information about the specific wrongdoing of a specific person.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mary Minow is an attorney who consults with libraries across the country. She says Section 215 of the new law does not protect against unreasonable searches, and that the standards for obtaining a search warrant are not as high as in routine criminal cases.
MARY MINOW: All that is needed is an ongoing investigation into international terrorism. You don't need probable cause that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed. You don't need a judge making that determination. It's a different court.
SPENCER MICHELS: Former Justice Department attorney Victoria Toensing, who supports the act, disagrees with that interpretation. She says probable cause is required. She talked with reporter Laura Dine.
VICTORIA TOENSING: Under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, there is no crime that has taken place. We're trying to prevent a terrorism attack. So it isn't the attorney general making the decision, or some FBI Agent out in the field, as in the case for grand jury subpoenas. It is, in fact, subject to a judicial court order prior to any records being requested from a bookstore or any other business, for business records.
SPENCER MICHELS: It's not illegal to destroy most documents. In the past, most libraries shredded library records and lists of online users when there was time. Now, in Santa Cruz, since the law passed, it's done daily. And that still bothers attorney Toensing.
VICTORIA TOENSING: If I'm a terrorist and I need to use a computer system to e- mail my buddies, guess where I'm going to go. I'm going to go right to the libraries that have refused to keep any kind of records of who is using the computers.
SPENCER MICHELS: So far, Santa Cruz has not been asked by the FBI to turn over any records. While statistics are elusive because of the secrecy provisions of the act, one study did find 178 libraries have received FBI visits since 9/11. Librarian Turner would rather not cooperate.
ANNE TURNER: What we can't comply with are... or don't feel we should have to comply with are fishing expeditions. We think there might be subversives or terrorists in Santa Cruz, so we want to see all the records at the library in order to find out who's been reading bad stuff.
VICTORIA TOENSING: The FBI cannot go in willy-nilly to a library and say, "give me a list of everybody who's read a book on building a bomb."
SPENCER MICHELS: Cyrill Vatomsky, host of a conservative radio talk show in Santa Cruz, and a Russian émigré, agrees. He thinks the library and its shredding of records goes too far.
CYRILL VATOMSKY, Radio Talk Show Host: I think it's a tempest in a teapot, really. I can tell you that this is not a police state, because I lived for 30 years under a police state. I don't think that in recent history in the United States-- I might be wrong-- there was anybody that was accused or sentenced for any kind of jail time just for the fact that they read something in the library.
SPOKESMAN: Please sign there.
SPENCER MICHELS: At Bookshop Santa Cruz, owner Neal Coonerty says unlike libraries, bookstores have to keep their credit sales records for tax purposes-- records the FBI Could use to identify certain readers.
NEAL COONERTY, Bookstore Owner: There's an international standard book number on every book, so it's identified on the register tape. Now, we don't want a chilling factor so that people start deciding what they're going to choose to read and what they're not going to choose to read. Because you buy a murder mystery doesn't mean you're planning a murder. Because you buy a book on Nazi Germany doesn't mean that you're a Nazi.
SPENCER MICHELS: While booksellers and librarians have spoken out forcefully against the Patriot Act, so far there has been no legal challenge and with good reason, according to attorney Mary Minow.
MARY MINOW: You need to be willing to obstruct justice, perhaps go to jail, and so we're waiting for somebody who's going to make that challenge. It's hard to show standing unless you've been affected yourself.
SPOKESMAN: We have motivated...
SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, independent Congressman Bernie Sanders, along with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, have introduced bills in Congress, and stumped for them across the country, to exempt libraries and bookstores from the Patriot Act.
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: The truth of the matter is, this section of the USA Patriot Act should be vigorously opposed not only by progressives, but should be opposed by any honest conservative in this country.
SPENCER MICHELS: Sanders says conservatives should be worried about government intrusion. He has more than 110 cosponsors to his bill, but congressional hearings have not yet been scheduled. The new search provisions of the Patriot Act, if not renewed by congress, will expire in 2005.