A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 1

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 8 2003 11:06 AM

A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 1

Should you be scared of the Patriot Act?

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In Congress, Rep. Bernard Sanders has proposed the Freedom to Read Protection Act to repeal provisions that subvert library patrons' privacy, and in July 2003 Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ron Wyden introduced the Protecting the Rights of Individuals Act, requiring FBI agents to convince a judge of the merits of their suspicions before obtaining an individual's medical or Internet records. Similarly, Sen. Russ Feingold's Library, Bookseller and Personal Records Privacy Act would allow FBI access to business records pertaining to suspected terrorists or spies only. Feingold's bill would restore the pre-Patriot requirement that the FBI make a factual, individualized showing that the records sought pertain to a specific suspected terrorist.

Enough to get you through a cocktail party: 215 does extend FBI power to conduct essentially warrantless records searches, especially on people who are not themselves terror suspects, with little or no judicial oversight. The government sees this as an incremental change in the law, but the lack of meaningful judicial oversight and expanded scope of possible suspects is pretty dramatic.

Correction, Sept. 7, 2003: This article originally neglected to note that most of the 50 library visits the Department of Justice reported to Congress occurred in the course of ordinary criminal investigations and did not rely on the powers granted by Section 215. ( Return to corrected sentence.)

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast