Thousands of petitions signed by Americans who oppose a key provision of the U.S.A Patriot Act, approved by Congress in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, have been delivered to Capitol Hill. A noted author, Salman Rushdie, took part in an event at which critics repeated calls for repealing the section of the law, saying Congress went too far three years ago in trying to protect Americans from potential future terrorist attacks.
Boxes and boxes of petitions were delivered to Capitol Hill as part of a news conference aimed at reinforcing what Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders says is the most important lesson from the 2001 terrorist attacks:
"We can and must fight terrorist without undermining the basic principles and constitutional rights which make us a free country," he said. "We do not need legislation, such as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows government agents access to files of American libraries and booksellers without probable cause."
Congressman Sanders has been fighting against Section 215 since the Patriot Act was approved by Congress, in an overwhelming vote, shortly after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.
The section expands F.B.I powers to force individuals to turn over information deemed relevant to counter-terrorist investigations, including records from public libraries and book sellers.
The government does not have to demonstrate what is called probable cause to obtain this information, and can investigate U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Civil liberties groups condemn Section 215, saying it violates several parts of the U.S. Constitution, and opens the door to government intrusions and violations of civil rights.
Appearing in support of the petition drive was author Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses was declared blasphemy against Islam by Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. He is now President of the American Center of PEN, an organization devoted to defending literature and protecting writers, editors and journalists persecuted because of their work.
"Why does the government need the power to search records of people who are not suspected of being terrorists or agents of foreign governments," he said. "Why is it necessary that Section 215 orders be issued by a secret court, the foreign intelligence surveillance court, and not by courts where bookseller and librarians have the ability to challenge overly broad orders. Why is it necessary to impose a gag order that prevents law-biding citizens from learning that their records have come under scrutiny? Will the growing use of the Patriot Act authorize national security letters that allow federal investigators to seek records without even securing FISA (Foreign Intelligence Security Act) orders? What guarantees exist that these searches receive any independent review at all? And finally why can't the number of bookstore and library searches be made public?"
Mr. Rushdie was forced into hiding for ten years by the religious fatwa which threatened his life. In 1998, the Iranian government said it would no longer enforce the edict against him.
Mr. Rushdie warns against tendencies since 2001, seen in other countries and in the United States with the Patriot Act, to sacrifice civil liberties in the war against terrorism:
"I have good ground to deplore terrorism, and to think there is very good reason to do things to get rid of it, but we also grapple with the impact of anti-terror and national security measures not just here but around the world," he said [Two examples are] "Turkey, South Korea, countries which have claimed to be struggling with terrorist threats and which have passed anti-terror laws which greatly exceed their stated purpose and come to be used to consolidate power and cover up government misconduct and stifle dissent."
More than 180,000 people signed the petition, through campaigns at libraries, and some 500 bookstores in numerous U.S. states, aimed at repealing Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Oren Teicher is chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association, representing independent bookstores. He calls the petition drive a victory in the fight for reader privacy.
"We promised our customers when we collected those signatures that we would present them to Congress and we are proud to fulfill that promise today," he said It is not just the bookstores and libraries and publishers and writers who are urging Congress to restore the protection for reader privacy, the readers of America are demanding the right to read freely."
The Patriot Act, which must be renewed by Congress, has been the subject of frequent and intense debate on Capitol Hill, with many lawmakers suggesting amendments aimed at lessening its impact on civil liberties.
However, the law has strong support from the Bush administration, and from Republicans who see it as strengthening efforts to prevent another terrorist attack.