The Patriot Act passed by Congress in the months after the September 11 attacks contains an obscure provision, Section 215, that allows law enforcement authorities to obtain a warrant from a secret federal court for bookstore or library transaction records of those believed to be connected to an investigation of international terrorism or spying. Unlike with typical search warrants, authorities aren't required to produce evidence that someone is suspected of a crime to obtain these "secret" search warrants.
"They have always had rights through subpoenas to get records," said Mecklenburg's Director of Libraries Bob Cannon. "All this does is make it easier to get those permissions. It's just a new world."
Cannon said that if a patron's records were requested, the county library system would turn them over.
"We have two options," said Cannon. "We could comply or go to jail. For the library person who tells anybody about it, it's a felony. Librarians are really upset about that."
Since the Patriot Act passed, no records have been requested from any of the libraries in Mecklenburg County, Cannon said. In the 16 years he has worked for the system, he says law enforcement authorities, including the Secret Service and local police, have subpoenaed the records of patrons a total of three times.
Every year, the county library system processes seven million transactions on behalf of its half-million library cardholders. Law enforcement authorities don't monitor these records, Cannon said, and wouldn't know what library patrons are reading unless "some FBI agent found that out some other way."
In a December letter from Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant of the Justice Department to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bryant wrote that anyone who gives personal information to a library to obtain a library card or uses a credit card at a bookstore "assumes the risk that the entity may disclose it to another."
After the Bush administration refused to disclose how it is using the provision, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was filed by a group of bookseller and librarian organizations across the country and a bill introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this month seeks to roll back that part of the Patriot Act.