(Host) Congressman Bernie Sanders says Congress went too far when it gave the government broad surveillance powers over libraries and bookstores. The USA Patriot Act allows federal investigators to find out who uses library computers, what web sites they visit, and what books they read. Sanders says the law is an invasion of privacy. He plans to introduce legislation to roll back the new authority.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Congressman Sanders came to the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington to make a point about privacy and the free flow of information. According to Sanders, Congress overreacted when it gave federal investigators sweeping new powers to collect information from libraries.
(Sanders) “This is a crashing and crushing attack on basic rights in this country. It has got to be opposed. The bottom line here is that, today under this legislation a citizen of the state of Vermont can walk into this library or any library in this state, any bookshop in this state, and take out a book and find that the United States government has begun an investigation using a very low threshold in terms of going forward.”
(Dillon) The surveillance powers are authorized in the USA Patriot Act. The bill was passed in the month following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Reference librarian Trina Magi works at the University of Vermont and is past president of the Vermont Library Association. She says 48 states – including Vermont – have laws protecting the confidentiality of library records. Magi says the USA Patriot Act changes those privacy standards. She says the law makes it illegal for librarians to tell the public that their library is now part of a federal investigation.
(Magi) “There’s clearly a gag rule as part of the provision of this law which prohibits us from telling either the person who is being investigated or anyone else that an investigation is under way. So we’re not at liberty to talk about that. We’re also not at liberty to inform library users that monitoring devices have been installed on computers in the library. So you come in, you sit down and you don’t know whether something’s been installed on that machine.”
(Dillon) Sanders voted against the Patriot Act because of his concerns that the law would weaken privacy rights and protections of civil liberties. He says he hopes to team up with conservatives in Congress to amend the law.
(Sanders) “The essence of what being a conservative is about – it’s not my philosophy – but the essence is: Get government out of the picture. Don’t get government involved in our lives. Well, I cannot imagine an area where government is more involved in your life if you could be under surveillance if you walk into a bookstore, into library. So I think we’re going to have some honest conservatives, some progressives, some moderates as well.”
(Dillon) Sanders says the federal government already had the authority to use subpoenas and search warrants to obtain information from libraries. According to Sanders, an anonymous survey done by the University of Illinois found that 83 libraries across the country were visited by investigators after September 11.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.