The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to learn how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers under the U.S. Patriot Act. The organizations asked for an expedited review of their filing, which would require that the government respond to the request within 10 days. If the request is denied, ABFFE, the ACLU and EPIC will consider filing a lawsuit to obtain the information.

The FOIA filing came several days after ABFFE, along with PEN and the AAP, sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee supporting its efforts to force the Justice Department to reveal how many times it has used its subpoena power. In June, the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department asking 50 questions about the use of the Patriot Act. On July 26, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant replied in a letter that the requested information was confidential and would be turned over only to the House Intelligence Committee. The House Judiciary Committee has legal responsibility for overseeing the Patriot Act; the House Intelligence Committee does not.

The Justice Department's refusal to provide the information to the House Judiciary Committee has raised the ire of the committee chairman, James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) , who wants the information turned over by Labor Day. Sensenbrenner threatened to issue a subpoena to Attorney General John Ashcroft to force him to testify before the Judiciary Committee.

The issue is of particular interest to booksellers. Section 215 of the Patriot Act grants the FBI the ability to demand that any person or business immediately turn over records of books purchased or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement with "international terrorism" or "clandestine activities." The act includes a gag order, preventing a bookstore or library from discussing the matter with anyone or announcing the matter to the press.

Chris Finan, head of ABFFE, said, "We're all in the dark here because of the gag provision as to how many subpoenas or court orders have been issued. No one will tell you if there's a few or a thousand that have been issued." He added, "We're not asking for details, we just want to know a number."

Though the government has not released any information, Finan said he's heard of at least two libraries being approached for information, but has not yet heard of a bookstore being approached.

ABFFE sent a letter to booksellers last October suggesting that if the FBI approaches them, they should phone ABFFE and ask for help without revealing why. ABFFE would understand that as a code and put the bookseller directly in touch with ABFFE's own attorneys.

Finan said that ABFFE recognizes that some information may need to remain secret, but it should be possible for someone in the Justice Department to act as an ombudsman to act on behalf of those stores or libraries that the government wants to serve with subpoenas.