STATEMENT OF BARBARA COMSTOCK, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS,
“The USA PATRIOT Act was passed nearly unanimously by the Senate 98-1, and 357-66 in the House, with the support of members from across the political spectrum. The Patriot Act was a long overdue measure to close gaping holes in the government's ability, responsibly and lawfully, to collect vital intelligence information on criminal terrorists to protect our citizens from savage attacks such as those which occurred on September 11, 2001. It updated the law to accommodate modern technology and to use the same tools in terrorism that we have used for years in drug cases and organized crime cases.
“Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which applies to business records in general -- not specifically library records -- is a section of the law with a narrow scope that scrupulously respects first amendment rights, requires a court order to obtain any business records, and is subject to congressional reporting and oversight on a regular basis. Section 215 actually imposes more restrictions on its use than a federal grand jury subpoena for the same records. In a recent statement from the House Judiciary Committee regarding Section 215, they noted, ‘[t]he Committee's review of classified information related to FISA orders for tangible records, such as library records, has not given rise to any concern that the authority is being misused or abused.’
“It should be noted that criticism of Section 215 frequently ignores what the provision actually includes:
Narrow Scope: Section 215 can only be used in a narrow set of investigations: (1) to obtain foreign intelligence information about people who are neither American citizens nor lawful permanent residents; and (2) to defend the United States against foreign spies or international terrorists. Section 215 cannot be used to investigate garden-variety crimes, or even domestic terrorism.
First Amendment Rights: Section 215 goes to great lengths to preserve the First Amendment rights of libraries, bookstores, other affected entities, and their patrons. FBI agents are prohibited from using a suspect’s exercise of First Amendment rights as a pretext for seeking records or information. The section specifically states that an investigation conducted under this section shall ‘not be conducted of a United States person solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.’
Court Order Requirement: FBI agents cannot obtain records under section 215 unless they receive a court order. Agents cannot use this authority unilaterally to compel libraries or any other entity to turn over their records. They can obtain such documents only by appearing before the FISA court and convincing it that they need them.
Oversight: Section 215 provides for thorough congressional oversight. Every six months, the Attorney General is required to ‘fully inform’ Congress on the number of times agents have sought a court order under section 215, as well as the number of times such requests were granted, modified, or denied. While this information is classified, Congress has been fully informed about how many times this provision has been used.”