Spies and Spines

It's not often that everyone in the book industry feels the same way about something, but no one's happy about what went down in the U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday. Elliott Bay Book Company general manager Tracy Taylor called it all "very disheartening." Left Bank Books employee Roger Weaver called it "a travesty." Arundel Books owner Phil Bevis called it "bad for the country." They were all referring to the Republican-run House of Representatives' failure to approve legislation that would have effectively stopped the government from enforcing Section 215, the scary passage in the USA PATRIOT Act that gives federal agents access to library and bookstore records in case they decide to check up on what you've been reading. Around the country, most people have been outraged at the questionable tactics the House leadership used to browbeat independent-minded Republicans into voting the party line; what's even more shocking for Washington State is that Adam Smith, a Democrat whose constituency includes parts of South King County, voted with the Republicans as well. He was one of only four Democrats to do so. He told The Stranger Monday that now he's having second thoughts. "I will tell you I am in a different place on this issue than I was when I voted on it three or four days ago," he said.

"Is that because he's heard from his constituents that he's going to have to look for another job?" said Bevis, a lifelong Republican who thinks Smith's constituents should be "outraged" over Smith's vote. In addition to owning a bookstore, Bevis is a spokesman for Campaign for Reader Privacy, a group sponsored by all major bookseller and library associations that advocates amending Section 215 to protect the privacy of readers.

Smith explained his July 8 vote by saying, "I don't agree with the viewpoint that whatever law enforcement wants they ought to get, but nor do I agree with the viewpoint that they shouldn't ever be trusted with anything."

Last week's legislation, had it passed, would not have altered Section 215, but it would have prevented the Justice Department from spending any money to enforce it. In the days since the vote, Smith has belatedly recognized problems with Section 215, including that the "probable cause" that's required to access people's private records is never defined. If given the chance, Smith now says he would vote the other way, which is hugely frustrating since, had he voted differently last week, he would have broken the legislation-killing tie. (Legislation that would actually alter Section 215 is pending.)

"We're deeply disappointed and surprised and shocked" by Smith's vote last week, said Jerry Sheehan of the local chapter of the ACLU. Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System, said that Smith's vote surprised him because the PATRIOT Act "creates opportunities for all sorts of abuses that don't need to be there." Tracy Taylor at Elliott Bay Book Company said that Elliott Bay owner Peter Aaron "would go to jail" before the store ever turned over customer records to the Justice Department.