Big brother in the bookstore

Published July 8, 2004 8:17PM (EDT)

Many legislators on Capitol Hill will own up to supporting the Patriot Act, even with some of its more noxious provisions, in a 9/11-induced haze. But there are a few politicians in Washington -- especially those surrounding President Bush -- who continue to insist that, somehow, keeping track of what books ordinary Americans check out of the library will stop the next al-Qaida plot. Bush himself seems intent on keeping every part of the law on the books, a fact underscored yesterday when the White House threatened to veto a spending bill if it contained amendments weakening the government's power to spy on Americans' reading habits. The Associated Press reports: "The House planned to vote Thursday on a proposal by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., that would prevent the government from using the Patriot Act to demand records from book stores and libraries. The election-season showdown is the latest over the law, which Bush has sought to expand but which Democrats and some conservative Republicans say has infringed on individual rights.

"As the House debated the spending bill Wednesday, the White House budget office sent a memo to lawmakers warning that if an amendment 'that would weaken the USA Patriot Act were adopted and presented to the president for his signature, the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto.'

"With Republicans controlling Congress, it is virtually inconceivable that lawmakers would send Bush a bill -- especially in an election year -- confronting him on a high-profile topic. Rather than an omen of an impending showdown, the veto threat underscored the administration's determination to take an aggressive stance on law enforcement and terrorism.

"In a written statement afterward, Sanders fired back.

"'Every American wants to fight terrorism vigorously, but they want to do it in a way that does not undermine basic Constitutional rights,' Sanders said. 'American citizens...have made it very clear that they do not want the government monitoring their reading habits when they walk into a library or a bookstore.'"

(Update: But supporters of the president still won today, the Associated Press is now reporting. The amendment to curtail one of the excesses of the Patriot Act lost. Looks like Big Brother is here to stay.)

By Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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