If Attorney General John Ashcroft really wants to defend the USA Patriot Act, he might want to start treating seriously the objections raised by the law's critics.
Among the critics are the nation's librarians, who strenuously object to a provision in the act that allows the FBI to secretly subpoena library records and imposes a gag order to forbid librarians from talking about the subpoena.
Monday, Ashcroft all but called the librarians deluded hysterics.
The "baseless hysteria," he said, is because "some have convinced the American Library Association that under the bipartisan Patriot Act, the FBI is not fighting terrorism. Instead, agents are checking how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel." A spokesman later expanded that point to say the ALA had been "somewhat deluded" by ideologues.
That's not how to win friends and supporters, the point of the attorney general's 16-city tour, in which he generally spoke to friendly audiences and avoided the press in an effort to quell the growing criticism of the USA Patriot Act.
Ashcroft suggested that the questioning of the law is confined to Washington, as in "if you were to listen to some in Washington," but the criticism seems to come from everywhere but the capital. Congress has raised some tepid objections to the law, passed hastily in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but two states and 160 communities have passed resolutions objecting to the Patriot Act.
And then there was the usual hint that any questioning of the Bush administration was somehow impeding the war on terrorism. Said Ashcroft: "The hysteria is ridiculous. Our job is not." Of course, no one was saying that the Justice Department's job is ridiculous, but such a remark sought to leave that impression.
There is some rationale for the snooping provision. Terrorists did use publicly accessible computers at libraries to do research and communicate, and the provision is not without safeguards since a federal judge must sign off on the subpoena.
The power to snoop on library records may only be rarely used, but no one will know, since the frequency with which library records are being secretly accessed is also a secret. Wouldn't want the public to get hysterical, after all.