The Corner

Section 215

Several readers have offered similar complaints along these lines about my Mother Jones post:

Jonah – Since you posted about the Patriot Act in the corner, I thought I would take the opportunity to ask you something that has been bugging me. Why does the “it has never been used” defense get so much play by conservatives on the library part of the Patriot Act? I would think that a bad law is a bad law, regardless if it has been used or not.

Put another way, say that Clinton got a law passed stating that the president had executive power to take money from CEOs and buy drugs for homeless people with it. If he never used the law, would you defend it on those grounds?

There is obviously a valid debate about whether that aspect of the Patriot Act is good or bad, but I very rarely see conservatives defending the essence of it, only the implementation (or lack thereof).

My quick response: This is a perfectly legitimate point. However, I am perfectly willing to defend the Patriot Act and section 215 — and I have many times. My motive in mentioning that section 215 has never been utilized is not to defend the law, it is to attack its critics. Many, many, critics of the Patriot Act insisted that 215 was authorizing actual and ongoing civil liberties outrages. The Democratic presidential candidates caterwauled about the ongoing trampling of our civil liberties and the invasions of our libraries. Russ Feingold said Americans are “afraid to read books, terrified into silence.”

This was all bogus.

Now, there are plenty of intellectually honest objections to 215. I disagree with them, but I can respect them. But there’s a huge difference between saying a law is a potential threat to our civil liberties and saying the law is resulting in real outrages occurring in our existing space and time. That’s why I think it’s relevant. As for the Mother Jones article, I thought it was journalistically relevant that the magazine thinks the fact that 215 has remained on the shelf is so irrelevent to this librarian’s heroic resistance, it doesn’t even mention it. I think that’s either outrageous or funny.