Rep. Bernie Sanders Talks With BTW

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The Vermont Congressman discusses crucial closed-door meetings and a possible Senate run

Rep. Bernie Sanders

Over the past two-plus years, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been one of the most vocal proponents of the grassroots movement to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. In March 2003, he introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157), which would amend Section 215 to protect the privacy of bookstore and library patrons, and he has played a significant role in calling attention to the potential that this controversial provision has for endangering citizens' constitutional rights.

On Friday, June 3, at this year's Celebration of Bookselling at BookExpo America, ABA and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) will make a special presentation to Sanders in recognition of his leadership role in the battle to defend reader privacy.

Over the past month, the USA Patriot Act has been featured prominently in the news as the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have held hearings on the 16 provisions of the Act (including Section 215) that are set to expire at year's end. In his testimony, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales conceded the Section 215 needed clarification, providing some encouragement that efforts to amend it might be successful. However, last week the Senate Intelligence Committee made a surprise announcement that the committee would be conducting a closed door "markup" session on the provisions of the Patriot Act due to sunset and would remove the sunset from all 16 provisions -- a development that Sanders called "disappointing."

Bookselling This Week was recently able to talk with Rep. Sanders via e-mail about the battle to amend Section 215, his Patriot Act Reform efforts in Congress, and the rumors that there is a Senate run in his future.

BTW: What was your reaction to Attorney General Gonzales's concession that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act needed "clarification" and that the Department of Justice was willing to amend it (to allow for specific challenges to Section 215 orders and to allow someone to talk to an attorney in preparation of that order)?

Rep. Bernie Sanders: I am pleased that Attorney General Gonzales has indicated that he is willing to work with members of Congress to amend this egregiously intrusive section and allow citizens to exercise their right to challenge a 215 order and discuss the order with an attorney. I do not believe that we would have seen this willingness on the Administration's part without the tremendous grassroots support and organization of librarians and booksellers. The American people have made their voices heard on this issue.

However, according to recent newspaper reports, the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to hold a closed-door markup of Patriot Act legislation next week. This is disappointing considering Attorney General Gonzales' statements advocating an open and public discussion of the Patriot Act and any reauthorization of the bill. Any amendments to, or reauthorization of, the Patriot Act should occur in a public forum where all members of Congress can participate and the American people can closely follow the debates. In fact, Congress should be holding town meetings all across the country on this bill.

BTW: Are you more hopeful that the fight to amend Section 215 to protect the First Amendment rights of citizens will succeed?

Rep. Sanders: I am optimistic that the fight to amend Section 215 will succeed. Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, Conservative and Progressive, agree that numerous sections of the Patriot Act, particularly Section 215, need to be amended and clarified. With the Administration conceding that amendments to Section 215 are necessary, I think we will see real change within this section.

BTW: How important do you think your legislation and others like it -- along with booksellers' grassroots efforts to bring this issue to light through various efforts, such as the Campaign for Reader Privacy -- were in getting to this point?

Rep. Sanders: The grassroots efforts of librarians and booksellers, as well as their organized efforts through the Campaign for Reader Privacy, have been extraordinary. They have helped drive this issue and have forced the Congress to discuss the constitutional questions surrounding Section 215.

BTW: Can you tell our readers something about the Patriot Act Reform Caucus and its plans?

Rep. Sanders: I helped to form the Patriot Act Reform Caucus with Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). We wanted to demonstrate that amending the Patriot Act to protect Americans' constitutional rights is not a partisan issue and that progressives and conservatives should join forces to demand major changes in it. In Congress and at the grassroots level, we're going to see some unusual political alliances coming together, and that's exactly what it's going to take to win this battle.

The Patriot Act Reform Caucus' purpose is to support initiatives that protect the nation from enemies, while also ensuring that the laws we pass to fight the war on terrorism do not violate our constitutional civil liberties or diminish the system of checks and balances of our three branches of government. The caucus will serve as a forum for members to discuss and develop legislative proposals to ensure that these constitutional freedoms and protections are maintained in any Patriot Act reauthorization.

BTW: During the hearings, many proponents for Section 215 made a point that because law enforcement officials have never abused the provision (as far as anyone knows), it should be made permanent. How would you respond to this argument? What about to people who contend that amending 215 may threaten our national security?

Rep. Sanders: That's an incredibly weak argument. Just because there has been no record of abuse does not mean that it cannot occur. Essentially, the Justice Department is saying "Just trust us, we will not abuse the law." This is simply unacceptable. We must have appropriate checks and balances within the law.

The FBI and the Justice Department have always had access to library and bookstore records through search warrants and criminal grand jury subpoenas. Amending Section 215 will not change this fact. However, amending Section 215 will restore and protect the privacy and First Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons, which were in place before the passage of the Patriot Act.

BTW: Can you give us an update on H.R. 1157 and its current status in the House, and what's next for the bill?

Rep. Sanders: H.R. 1157 has 123 bipartisan cosponsors and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. While I believe the Republican leadership should schedule a vote on H.R. 1157 on the House floor, they have not expressed their intent to do so.

BTW: And, finally, is there any truth to rumors that you may be running for Senate?

Rep. Sanders: Although an official announcement is many months in the future, I have made it clear to Vermonters that I will be running to succeed Senator [Jim] Jeffords to become the first elected Independent Senator in modern American history. -- Interview by David Grogan