According to a memo obtained by CBS News Correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis, Attorney General John Ashcroft reveals that the FBI has never used its expanded powers to obtain records from libraries and businesses, despite widespread fears from librarians and civil libertarians that FBI agents are visiting libraries as part of terrorism and criminal investigations.
"Public confidence in law enforcement is of paramount importance," Ashcroft wrote in a memo to FBI director Robert Mueller.
"The number of times section 215 has been used to date is zero," the memo says.
The Justice Department hopes the information, now made public for the first time, will stop the ongoing criticism of the Patriotic Act and its expanded powers.
In the memo, Ashcroft says because he has not been able to "counter" the "troubling amount of distortion" about the library powers, Ashcroft decided to disclose the number.
The attorney general Wednesday personally telephoned the American Library Association, to say he would declassify how many times the FBI has demanded records from libraries and businesses under the Patriot Act.
ALA Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff said the disclosure was a good first step but wants the FBI out of libraries altogether.
"We don't want anything to make people think twice about coming into the library and taking out books," she said. "We don't want anything chilling students' pursuit of intellectual endeavors."
Critics have said the FBI's authority to obtain the records threatens the privacy and First Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons, as well as other businesses. Law enforcement officials say the power is rarely used, properly supervised by judges and essential to combat terror.
"We still are very hopeful that the Congress will amend the Patriot Act to eliminate this change in library records," Sheketoff told CBS Radio News. "We really do believe ... that library records are different than mere business records and need to be protected."
In his memo to Mueller, Ashcroft noted that all members of Congress have had access to the formerly secret information about use of the section 215 authority in the Patriot Act. Yet many continued to criticize the law, with some libraries even posting signs warning patrons that the FBI might check into their reading habits and others destroying records more frequently.
In speeches this week, Ashcroft has called the criticism "hysteria."
"I hope that this decision indicates a new willingness to address public concerns about the Patriot Act in a forthright and honest manner, rather than ridiculing those who believe the law may not adequately protect our citizens' constitutional freedoms," said Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate vote against the Patriot Act.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, who is sponsoring legislation to exempt libraries and bookstores from the Patriot Act, said there is momentum in Congress to scale back the law. The Republican-controlled House recently voted against "sneak and peek" searches that allow for delay of notification of the target.
"The bottom line is not so much what may or may not have been done in the past, but what might be done in the future," said Sanders, I-Vt.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act does not specifically mention libraries or bookstores. But it permits the FBI to obtain secret warrants in foreign terrorism or intelligence investigations for "books, records, papers, documents and other items" from all types of businesses or other organizations.
Such warrants must be approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees investigations of individuals or groups in the United States believed to be foreign terrorists or spies. The individual who receives the subpoena is barred from disclosing that fact.