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Patriot Act: What's not known feeds debate

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On Monday, a day before Senate oversight hearings on the Patriot Act, the Justice Department released some of this information for the first time: Roving wiretaps have been used 49 times under the law. The law's new powers to seize personal records have been used 35 times, none involving medical, library, bookstore, or gun sale records. And delayed-notification search warrants, dubbed "sneak and peek" by critics, have been used 155 times (this doesn't expire at year-end, as Congress demanded for the most controversial provisions).

The new information, while answering some questions, has raised others.

As recently as September 2003, then-Attorney General Ashcroft told Congress that the personal records provision had never been used at all, prompting questions from lawmakers on why it's apparently been used 35 times since then.

And, in an exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, FBI director Robert Mueller said that one reason federal officials had not had to invoke the law to gain access to library records is that "we have had the cooperation of the libraries to date." The comment caught the attention of a representative from the American Library Association, present at Tuesday's Senate hearing.

"It's a core principle of our profession that user records are confidential. If you're not free to read and research and think, you don't have freedom of speech," says Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the ALA's Washington office, which is conducting a nationwide survey of public libraries on their involvement with law enforcement.

In his first appearance before Congress since taking over the Justice Department, Attorney General Gonzales signaled more openness to revising the law than his predecessor, John Ashcroft, who often said that bids to curb the law would weaken the war on terrorism and endanger American lives.

Still, when pressed by Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter on whether he would be willing to exclude authority to obtain library and medical records from the law, Gonzales declined: "It's comparable to a police officer who carries a gun for 15 years and never draws it. Does that mean that for the next five years he should not have that weapon because he had never used it?" he said Tuesday.

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