Bob Egelko San Francisco Chronicle 1/17/09

President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general has endorsed an extension of the law that allows federal agents to demand Americans’ library and bookstore records as part of terrorism probes, dismaying a national group of independent booksellers.

Eric Holder said at his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he supports renewing a section of the USA Patriot Act that allows FBI agents investigating international terrorism or espionage to seek records from businesses, libraries and bookstores. If not renewed by Congress, the provision will expire at the end of 2009.

The searches must be authorized by a court that meets secretly and has approved the government’s requests in nearly all cases, according to congressional reports. The target of the search does not have to be suspected of terrorism or any other crime. A permanent gag order that accompanies each search prohibits the business or library from telling anyone about it.

Holder said he realizes the provision has been controversial and he will seek more information from department staff before making a final decision, if confirmed as attorney general. He didn’t elaborate on his support for the law, but said at another point in the hearing that his top priority would be to protect Americans from terrorism, using “every available tactic … within the letter and spirit of the Constitution.”

“I was disappointed” that Holder supports the bookstore and library searches, “although maybe not entirely surprised,” Chris Finan, spokesman for the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said Friday.

The provision Holder wants Congress to renew, known as Section 215, “gives the government far too much power to conduct fishing expeditions in the records of bookstore customers and library patrons,” Finan said. “We never expected that the change of administration would mean we had any less of a fight on our hands.”

Finan said the Justice Department has told Congress that it conducted only 42 searches nationwide from 2004 through 2007, the last year covered by congressional reports. The law does not require the department to describe the targets of the searches, and Finan said no breakdowns on bookstore or library searches are available because of the gag orders.

Organizations of librarians and booksellers have denounced the law as an assault on reader privacy. Some libraries have posted signs warning patrons that their records are subject to government inspection, and many librarians now destroy files on borrowers who have returned their books.

Opponents of the Patriot Act provision have lobbied Congress to require that agents seeking such records obtain grand jury subpoenas, based on evidence of wrongdoing, and defend them before a judge if the record-keeper objected. So far, their efforts have failed.

Finan said the American Booksellers Association, which represents 2,000 independent bookstores, and allied groups of librarians, publishers and writers will instead try to soften the law along the lines of legislation that Obama supported in the Senate last year.

Carried by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the bill would have allowed agents to obtain records of customers and library patrons only if they were actually suspected of terrorism, and would have authorized court challenges by keepers of the records.

E-mail Bob Egelko at

This article appeared on page A – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle