BOB GARFIELD: A Vermont bookseller called Bear Pond Books recently destroyed its records on customer purchases -- a move that will harm its ability to market to its clientele based on their demonstrated reading preferences. But the proprietor felt this pre-emptive measure was necessary to protect customers against government surveillance under provisions of The Patriot Act. Around the country librarians and booksellers are increasingly alarmed by a section of the act that permits law enforcement with a minimum of probable cause to monitor such lists, as well as libraries' computer hard drives. This week Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would erase the act's most intrusive elements. He joins me now. Congressman Sanders, welcome to OTM.
BERNIE SANDERS: Good. It's nice to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Your bill would reverse some elements in Section 215 of the Patriot Act. What exactly does 215 give the federal government license to do?
BERNIE SANDERS: What it would do is allow the FBI and other government agencies, using very, very weak standards for probable cause, to come into our library and say "We want to know what books Mr. Jones took our" or we are going to place a device on your computer so that we will be monitoring the web sites that Mr. Jones visits. And by the way, it is against the law for you, librarian, to tell Mr. Jones that we are investigating him.
BOB GARFIELD: Or to fight the subpoena to begin with, or even to tell anybody about it!
BERNIE SANDERS: That's right. And the same rule and law applies to booksellers.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it unusual to have a piece of legislation to remedy another piece of legislation that's only recently passed?
BERNIE SANDERS:I suppose in some sense it is, but obviously this piece of legislation came into existence under very unusual circumstances. I think what has happened is that a year later people began to ask some hard questions. What was in the USA Patriot Act that passed the House without any amendments being allowed? What are some of the civil liberties problems in that bill?
BOB GARFIELD:This president's father helped himself get elected by accusing his opponent -- that was Michael Dukakis -- of being a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and it was said as an epithet and it stuck as an epithet. I think it's hard to explain to Americans why civil liberties are so important. They may enjoy them but they think that only somebody else needs to be protected from government intrusion. Only bad guys have to worry about that stuff, and if they go about their business and keep their nose clean, their civil liberties will never be infringed. Is this a difficult sell, just to the ordinary American?
BERNIE SANDERS: Well I, I think you, you raise a very good point. I mean I think when you fight about the need for health care for all people or lower-cost prescription drugs or raising the minimum wage, there is a built in constituency there -- millions and millions of people. I do hope and believe, however, that when people hear that the FBI or other government agencies can simply walk into a library with a very low threshold of probable cause and ask for your reading records, people say well, wait a second, that's not what we want to see in this country. Should, if the FBI has strong evidence that they're following a terrorist, should they have the right to do that? Well, in fact they have always had the right to do that. And we bring us back to the old threshold. So the question is not whether we give up our capability to investigate terrorism -- we have got to have that -- but can we continue the effort against terrorism without abrogating basic civil liberties in this country, and I think we can.
BOB GARFIELD:What about the politics of this? Do you believe there are members who may be sympathetic with the notion of not infringing on civil liberties but who would fear to vote for the bill knowing that there'll be an election 18 months' time and they'll be painted as soft on terrorism?
BERNIE SANDERS: Yeah, I, I would say that will be the major obstacle that we have. But I think that many members in Congress perceive that the USA Patriot Act has gone too far, including going too far in this particular section. Bottom line here is that what librarians and booksellers, and I think a number of us in Congress, fear is that if people believe that the FBI is looking over your shoulder in terms of the books that you're reading or the books that you are purchasing -- you are going to begin, perhaps, to change your reading habits. You really wanted to get that book on terrorism; you're interested in the issue. You may not get it. You were interested in studying Islam -- well maybe you're not going to get that. Maybe some books on nuclear power or chemistry or anarchism or whatever it may be. Because you just may have in the back of your mind the possibility that somebody may associate your reading habits with the belief that you might be a terrorist. So I think that puts a real chilling impact on intellectual curiosity in America; something we don't want to see.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Congressman Sanders, thank you very much!
BERNIE SANDERS: Well thank you very much. This is a very important issue, and I appreciate your interest.
BOB GARFIELD: Bernie Sanders is an independent Congressman from Vermont. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up, the printed word -- magazines sell smartly -- you can't tell a book industry by its cover -- and Oprah takes on the classics. [MUSIC]