Libraries and the USA PATRIOT Act

RS21441 -- Libraries and the USA PATRIOT Act

Updated February 3, 2006


The USA PATRIOT Act, P.L. 107-56, enacted to help track down and punish terrorists and to prevent further terrorism, contains no provisions specifically directed at libraries or their patrons. It has several provisions, however, that might apply in a library context. The most frequently mentioned of these is Section 215, which amends the business record sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). On December 22, 2005, the House and Senate enacted a bill (S. 2167) that extended the sunset of certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (including section 215), originally set to expire on December 31, 2005, until February 3, 2006. On February 2, 2006, Congress passed H.R. 4659, which further extended the sunset to March 10, 2006. The pending conference version of H.R. 3199 amends section 215 and postpones its expiration until December 31, 2009.

Before the USA PATRIOT Act, federal authorities engaged in gathering foreign intelligence information or conducting an investigation of international terrorism could seek a FISA court order for access to hotel, airline, storage locker, and car rental business records. Section 215 amended the procedure so that in a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation, federal authorities may obtain a FISA order for access to any tangible item no matter who holds it, including by implication library loan records and the records of library computer use. Although past practices have apparently made the library community apprehensive, the extent to which the authority of Section 215 has been used, if at all, is unclear. Media accounts of federal investigations involving library patrons ordinarily do not distinguish between simple inquiries, grand jury subpoenas, criminal search warrants, FISA physical search orders, and FISA tangible item orders. Moreover, the Justice Department has indicated that as of March 30, 2005, the authority under Section 215 had been exercised on 35 occasions but had not been used in any instance to secure library, bookstore, gun sale, or medical records.