Jonah Goldberg
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Every time self-described civil libertarians pick something to complain about, they end up with egg on their faces.

The latest embarrassment is the revelation that the Department of Justice has not invoked the Patriot Act's Section 215 - a section of the act that the ACLU crowd claims has turned the FBI into a library-raiding Gestapo.

What, in reality, is Section 215? It's a relatively innocuous provision of the Patriot Act that allows law enforcement to obtain, after getting approval from a judge, documents from third parties - your credit card company, for example - if they're pertinent to a terrorism investigation.

Caught up in the Section 215 hysteria they helped create, librarians have gone batty. One even burned her records lest the feds get their hands on the raw data revealing how many 15-year-olds borrowed "The Catcher In the Rye." Senator Russ Feingold even declared that Section 215 has made Americans "afraid to read books, terrified into silence."

Well, it turns out that this has all been an exercise in self-indulgent, pompous liberal feel-goodism and false bravado. Not only has the government never used 215, but the section doesn't even mention libraries - or any of the other secular holy sites allegedly imperiled by it.

At minimum, critics should stop talking about the Patriot Act's "trampling of rights" in the present tense. And lest they claim that they are being "vigilant" in the face of potential threats, someone should remind them that vigilance is fine, but lying and fear-mongering is crying wolf.

The Section 215 bashing is just the latest in an ongoing campaign to make up a problem out of the Patriot Act that does not exist. I'm sure you've heard that the Patriot Act also permits, in the words of Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine, "spying on the Web browsers of people who are not even criminal suspects." Errr, wrong. The Patriot Act actually toughens the standards by which the government can snoop on electronic communications.

Before the Patriot Act, there was no settled law on whether the government - or for that matter, some random stalker or Amazon.com - could acquire that kind of information. The Patriot Act made it a crime for the government or anybody else to pry into your e-mail without getting a court order.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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