NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 27, 2006

What do librarians and Las Vegas have in common? The Patriot Act, says Paul Coggins, former U.S. attorney for North Texas.

The Patriot Act gave law enforcement greater powers of surveillance while reducing and sometimes eliminating judicial oversight. Section 215, which applies to all businesses, allows the FBI to grab records without a district court order or grand jury subpoena. Librarians were one of the earliest critics of the so-called "library provision," says Coggins.

However, while foes of the Patriot Act try to table Section 215, the real action has been under the table -- the proliferation of National Security Letters, says Coggins. National Security Letters are like administrative subpoenas for financial and telecommunications records in national security investigations.

  • Born in the 1970s, National Security Letters were greatly expanded by the Patriot Act; today, the FBI issues them without oversight by a judge or a prosecutor and they carry a permanent gag order (meaning the institution from which the records are requested cannot disclose the request to anyone).
  • Since 2001, the number of National Security Letters has exploded to an estimated 30,000 a year.
  • In 2003, for example, Vegas was flooded with them, hitting hotels, casinos and other businesses with demands for financial records covering hundreds of thousands of tourists.
  • Also in 2003, by presidential order, records were dumped into a permanent data bank so a citizen would never know that sensitive records on him had been swept up and will be kept forever in federal files for data mining.

As Congress decides whether to hold or fold parts of the Patriot Act, the new player at the table is business. The debate is no longer just about civil liberties and librarians; now it's about hard currency and companies, says Coggins.

Source: Paul Coggins, "Think the Patriot Act won't affect you? Don't bet on it," Dallas Morning News, January 25, 2006.


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