Ashcroft defends search of library records

Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Justice Department's search of library records under the USA Patriot Act, telling lawmakers the process safeguards individual privacy.

Lawmakers expressed concern that officials conducting electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was reformed under the Patriot Act, have too much power and may be encroaching on civil liberties.

Ashcroft argued that grand juries have been able to subpoena business records, including library records, for some time in criminal investigations. The Patriot Act expanded their capabilities with records in foreign intelligence investigations.

"Foreign intelligence should be able to use the same tools" as criminal investigations, Ashcroft told lawmakers at an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Under FISA, FBI officials can gather any relevant tangible items, including book purchase records, library records and even some educational and genetic records, Ashcroft said. FISA has a very narrow scope and strict oversight, with stringent reporting requirements, he said.

"The FISA approach to libraries is very well encased in protection," Ashcroft said. "There has been a lot of misinformation about it."

Ashcroft referred to false reports that FBI agents loaded software into all the computers in one library to monitor use. He said instead, the FBI received a search warrant for a single computer under suspicion of terrorist-related activity.

The Patriot Act was enacted in October 2001 and allowed officials to implement new guidelines for FISA, which was passed in 1978. Reforms have been made since then to ensure proper management of the systems, including a FISA unit under the FBI.

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