The US House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to block federal agencies from using the anti-terrorist Patriot Act to review records of libraries and bookstores on grounds of national security, official sources said.
The House supported it despite a veto threat from Bush to block the part that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department to investigate the reading habits of terror suspects.
It voted 238-187 to push back the government's powers to conduct secret investigations authorised by the Act -- a post September 11 anti-terrorism law.
The vote reversed a narrow loss last year by lawmakers concerned about the potential invasion of privacy of innocent library users. They narrowed the proposal this year to permit the government to continue to seek out records of Internet use at libraries.
Sixteen provisions of the Patriot Act are due to expire this year. The Bush administration has proposed some minor adjustments in the law but said that in the main, the measures must all be renewed so that the country can be defended adequately against terrorism.
Those in support of rolling back the library provision said that the law gives the FBI too much leeway to go on fishing expeditions on people's reading habits and that innocent people could get tagged as potential terrorists based on what they check out from a library.
"If the government suspects someone is looking up how to make atom bombs, go to a court and get a search warrant," said Democrat Jerold Nadler.
However, supporters of the Patriot Act countered that the rules are a potentially useful tool in finding terrorists and argued that the House was voting to make libraries safe havens for them.
"If there are terrorists in libraries studying how to put together biological weapons, how to put together chemical weapons, nuclear weapons ... we have to have an avenue through the federal court system so that we can stop the attack before it occurs," said Republican Congressman Tom Feeney.
Last year, a similar provision was derailed by a 210-210 tie after several Republicans were pressured to switch votes.
In the meantime, a number of libraries have begun disposing of patrons' records quickly so they won't be available if sought under the law.