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Authorities haven't used Patriot Act to obtain records, memo shows | (KRT) Perhaps nothing in the USA Patriot Act has fed fears of rampant government snooping more than a part of the anti-terrorism law allowing federal agents to obtain library and business records.

But a memo obtained by Knight Ridder late Wednesday shows for the first time the number of times that law enforcement made use of that power: zero.

The number had been classified, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and other critics to accuse the government of using the secret warrants to violate First Amendment and privacy rights. Some libraries and bookstores were so worried that FBI agents might show up on their doorsteps that they took to destroying patrons' records. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in July challenging the provision.

Justice Department officials have long insisted such warrants are used rarely and only with proper judicial oversight from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees espionage and foreign terrorism cases.

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In a speech earlier this week, Attorney General John Ashcroft took on his critics, denouncing as "baseless hysteria" the claims that federal agents were checking up on Americans' reading habits.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association, said she was "shocked" by the lack of warrants, but said it showed that the power wasn't needed. "If this number is accurate, then they have demonstrated that there is no need to change the tradition of protecting library patrons' reading records," she said.

Although the figure has not been publicly available until now, it has been provided for the past two years in classified form to members of Congress. That came after the House Judiciary Committee asked for the data.

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the records had been kept sealed as a deterrent to terrorists. Terrorists have been known to use computers at public libraries to communicate.

"We don't want to provide a safe haven for terrorists anywhere, whether it be a library or a bookstore," the official said.

In explaining his decision to declassify the figure, Ashcroft said that although the information was available to members of Congress, criticism continued. "To date, we have not been able to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation" about the measure, he wrote in the memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The disclosure applies to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which passed just weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Section 215 permits the FBI to obtain secret warrants in foreign terrorism or intelligence investigations for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" from all types of businesses or other organizations. It never makes specific mention of libraries or bookstores.

While federal agents have not used the warrants, they have stepped up their use of national security letters, an administrative tool that can be used to obtain the same kinds of records. Such national security letters, which can request that businesses furnish financial records, telephone logs and other data, are not subject to judicial oversight. Moreover, these letters cannot force disclosure in the same way that subpoenas can.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services