Closing the books on the Patriot Act

Are cooler heads prevailing on both sides of the aisle in Congress?

By Mark Follman
Published June 16, 2005 1:19PM (EDT)

A solid majority in the House of Representatives voted yesterday, by a margin of 238 to 187, to prevent law enforcement agencies from snooping in the nation's libraries. A block of conservative Republicans was key to moving against President Bush's plans to reauthorize 15 provisions of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. What will happen when the Senate takes up the issue remains unclear.

House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney of Ohio, one of only three House Republicans who opposed the Patriot Act when it was enacted in 2001, was one of yesterday's substantially larger group of Republicans that voted to curtail FBI agents' power to spy on individuals' comings and goings at the library. "The government doesn't need to be sifting through library records. I talked to my libraries, and they felt very strongly about this," Ney said, according to the Washington Post. "Everybody's against terrorism, but there has to be reason in the way that we fight it."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, told the Post that the original measure had passed "in an atmosphere of panic" following the 9/11 attacks, and that a wide spectrum of lawmakers is beginning to conclude it went too far. "If some terrorist checks out a book about how to make an atomic bomb, that might be legitimate for the government to know, and they can get a search warrant or a subpoena the way we've done it throughout American history," he said. "Otherwise, what you're reading is none of the government's business."

House Republican leaders who back President Bush's position on the Patriot Act are not pleased, especially with some of their own conservative colleagues now showing a libertarian streak on the issue. As one unnamed aide to a House leader put it, the victorious coalition was comprised of "the crazies on the left and the crazies on the right, meeting in the middle."

Maybe that coalition of the crazies will next turn its attention to defending America's long-standing freedom of political speech -- also apparently under siege by this administration.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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