U.S.A. Patriot Act foes representing librarians and booksellers said they're far from encouraged by Attorney General John Ashcroft's assertion that the federal government has no interest in checking into anyone's reading habits.

"The FBI has a history, which Attorney General Ashcroft is ignoring, of violating civil liberties," said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. "So our concern that this could happen again certainly has precedent and historical support. The question of whether or not there have been any bookstores searched at this point gives us cool comfort."

Out stumping for support of the act last week, Ashcroft said federal authorities have neither the time nor the inclination to monitor Americans' reading habits. He added, "No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care." Ashcroft also said the Justice Department had never used the broad search powers granted by the act to check into a library's or bookstore's records.

"I hope it's true," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association. "I think that that is a very clear indication that the Justice Department doesn't need this authority and they should be supporting us to amend the Patriot Act."

At a press conference in Washington last week, lawmakers questioned the accuracy of Ashcroft's assurances that powers granted by the act had not been used to obtain library records. "There may be agents out there who have asked for this information that, quite frankly, the head of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., is unaware of," said Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho). Otter joined Reps. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in saying they would continue the legislative fight to repeal Section 215 of the act.

A Justice Department spokesman called Otter's speculation "laughable" and said Ashcroft's information was correct.

Otter offered no proof of library searches conducted using the broad discretion granted by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Likewise, neither Sheketoff nor Finan know of cases when Section 215 has been used to peek into reading habits. But given the gag order preventing those served with a subpoena from talking about it, the advocacy groups would not have been told anyway. Both groups have set up services offering confidential referrals to pro bono legal advice for anyone subpoenaed under the act. Finan said no booksellers have taken advantage of the offer, but Sheketoff said the ALA has gotten calls asking for help. Because of the act's gag order, the ALA does not collect information from librarians asking for referrals or keep records on the requests.