Floor Debate on Flake/Schiff Patriot Act Library Amendment

Mr. Chairman, I rise today to urge my colleagues to support the Flake-Schiff amendment, which would make an important change to section 215 if it is ever used in the library or bookstore context. This amendment is substantially similar to one I offered in the Committee on the Judiciary with the gentlewoman from California (Ms. Waters), but one I agreed to withdraw in order to work with the gentleman from Arizona (Mr. Flake) in a bipartisan fashion on a proposal for consideration on the House floor.

I am sure that every Member of Congress has heard from their constituents regarding this very provision of the PATRIOT Act. Even if possibly based on misplaced fears, some of the public are now apprehensive about going to their local library or bookstore.

Our amendment would not prevent law enforcement from investigating alleged terrorist activity wherever it may occur. It creates no safe haven for terrorists. Instead, our amendment would aim to restore some measure of public confidence that this provision will not be abused.

The Flake-Schiff amendment says that vis-a-vis the records that pose the greatest concern for all of our constituents, library records or bookstore records, the existing authority which allows lower level FBI agents to seek those records should be significantly amended.

If our amendment is adopted, only the FBI Director himself or herself can approve such an order for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.

As of the latest public disclosure, the Justice Department has reported that section 215 has never been used in a library. The fact, however, that this provision may never have been used in a library to date does not alter the fact that it affects the behavior of all of our constituents who are concerned that their records may one day be the subject of a search.

Given the sensitivity of this section, I believe it is worthwhile and necessary to make changes to existing law and that this added protection is warranted.

During the Committee on the Judiciary markup last week, I offered an additional amendment to section 215 that would have lifted the prohibition on disclosure when a United States citizen was impacted and when the investigation had concluded if there was no good cause to continue to prohibit the disclosure. Unfortunately, this amendment was rejected on party lines.

The Flake-Schiff amendment will still make another important and needed change. I believe it makes very good sense for the FBI Director and the Director alone to make the decision, and not to delegate it away. The bipartisan PATRIOT Act proposal in the Senate makes a similar change, restricting this authority to the FBI Director or Deputy Director. I think our amendment provides an even stronger safeguard and strikes a balance that will restore a measure of public confidence in this area.

Before closing, Mr. Chairman, I want to take a moment to discuss the Sanders amendment and other efforts to make important changes to section 215. While I am appreciative that the Committee on Rules made the Flake-Schiff amendment in order, I am disappointed that the Sanders amendment was not also made in order. I believe that this House and the American people are better served if all proposals are duly and fairly considered on the House floor.

As you know, last month the House decisively adopted the Sanders amendment during consideration of the Science, State, Justice and Commerce appropriations bill. I supported that amendment, which prohibited the use of funds for a section 215 search of a library record patron list, book sale record or book customer list.

The Sanders amendment, however, did not amend the underlying PATRIOT law, which I believe we must do as a first step. We must permanently limit the statutory authorization to use section 215 in libraries and bookstores. The Sanders amendment also made no changes to the ability to search library computer and Internet records.

I expect and encourage the gentleman from Vermont (Mr. Sanders) to bring his amendment before the House floor each year to further limit the use of section 215 with respect to specific lists and records in libraries and bookstores. But, for now, since the amendment only applies for 1 year and only applies to specific items in the library, I think it is important and necessary for the House to pass this broader and permanent change to the PATRIOT Act.

Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.