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Ashcroft Mocks Librarians and Others Who Oppose Parts of Counterterrorism Law

September 16, 2003
By ERIC LICHTBLAU


WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 - Attorney General John Ashcroft today
accused the country's biggest library association and other
critics of fueling "baseless hysteria" about the
government's ability to pry into the public's reading
habits.

In an unusually pointed attack as part of his latest speech
in defense of the Bush administration's counterterrorism
initiatives, Mr. Ashcroft mocked and condemned the American
Library Association and other Justice Department critics
for believing that the F.B.I. wants to know "how far you
have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel."

The association, which has argued for months that the
government's new antiterrorism powers risk encroaching on
the privacy of library users, took some satisfaction from
the broadside.

"If he's coming after us so specifically, we must be having
an impact," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the
library association's Washington office.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the department, said the
speech was intended not as an attack on librarians, but on
groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and
politicians who he said had persuaded librarians to
mistrust the government.

The American Librarian Association "has been somewhat duped
by those who are ideologically opposed to the Patriot Act,"
Mr. Corallo said.

Mr. Ashcroft's remarks, he said, "should be seen as a jab
at those who would mislead librarians and the general
public into believing the absurd, that the F.B.I. is
running around monitoring libraries instead of going after
terrorists."

Mr. Ashcroft's speech was his 17th in the last month in
defense of the sweeping counterterrorism act passed after
the Sept. 11 attacks and under increasing criticism for
those who contend that it gives the government too much
power.

But in departing from his usual remarks, Mr. Ashcroft
dwelled today much more expansively on the government's
powers under the legislation to demand access to library
records in searching for terrorists.

That issue has helped galvanize opposition to the act from
libraries nationwide and from some 160 communities that
have protested the law as too far-reaching.

It is not known how many times federal agents have actually
used the law to gain access to library records because that
information is classified. Even the association said it did
not know because libraries served with demands for such
records are bound by a gag order.

Mr. Ashcroft said critics had tried to persuade the public
that the F.B.I. was monitoring libraries to "ask every
person exiting the library, `Why were you at the library?
What were you reading? Did you see anything suspicious?' "

The Justice Department, Mr. Ashcroft said, "has no
interest in your reading habits. Tracking reading habits
would betray our high regard for the First Amendment. And
even if someone in government wanted to do so, it would
represent an impossible workload and a waste of law
enforcement resources."

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/16/politics/16LIBR.html?ex=1064911236&ei=1&en=1be6a7363faa547b

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