The acronym USA PATRIOT Act stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act,” but the American Library Association claims it does anything but unite and strengthen America.
Wrapping up its midwinter national conference last week in Philadelphia, the 63,000-member library organization adopted a resolution opposing sections of the act considered to “present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.”
The resolution opposes the “use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of recorded knowledge and information.”
“It has had more than a chilling effect – it’s a freezing effect – on librarians,” ALA president Mitch Freedman told WorldNetDaily. “Librarians have a deep commitment to the First Amendment, the freedom to read and the privacy of library users. And the USA PATRIOT Act knocks the hell out of that.”
Passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, the act amended more than a dozen federal statutes, including laws governing criminal procedure, computer fraud and abuse, foreign intelligence, wiretapping, immigration and the laws governing the privacy of student records.
These amendments expanded the authority of federal agents to trace and intercept electronic communications – including telephone calls, e-mails and logs of Internet usage – conduct clandestine physical searches, monitor confidential communications between lawyers and their clients in federal custody, detain immigrants and obtain library, bookstore and other commercial business records.
One of the federal statutes amended under the PATRIOT Act was the Watergate-era Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 that barred intelligence agents and law-enforcement officials from sharing details of criminal investigations.
“Congress gave Justice the tools we need to fight the war on terrorism … a war on people who want to sneak into this country and kill you, your family and your kids,” said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department.
Corallo told WND the 342-page anti-terrorism package “brought the government’s ability to surveil into the 21st century.”
It’s these new surveillance powers that librarians fear the most and say the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ability to spy on library users suspected of being terrorists under the PATRIOT Act is
reminiscent of federal agents’ hunt for communists sparked by the Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and continued throughout the Cold War.
Under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI no longer has to show a judge that it has probable cause to believe a person under surveillance has committed a crime to get a search warrant for a library’s
circulation records and computer hard drives. An agent only needs to convince the special FISA court judge that such records could aid a terrorism probe.
Because FISA court proceedings are secret and not subject to public scrutiny, Freedman points out there’s no due process or appeals process for libraries to counter efforts of federal agents to snoop on their patrons.
“And they framed it so that if you don’t comply with [a search warrant] it’s a felony and you’re seen as supporting terrorists,” Freedman complained.
A FISA search warrant also comes with a gag order barring library staff from telling anyone about the surveillance. The penalty for doing so is also a felony.
“It reminds me of the old country-western song, ‘Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places,'” Freedman told WND. “Looking for terrorists in a public library is just part of an overall strategy to diminish the civil liberties of American citizens.”
Public safety post-Sept. 11
“Your First Amendment rights are a moot point if you’re dead,” counters Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the world’s largest organization of sworn law-enforcement
officers, numbering more than 300,000 members.
While not agreeing with everything in the PATRIOT Act “jot and tittle,” Pasco told WND that on balance, his organization views it as a necessary piece of legislation to help those involved in public safety make America a safer place.
“This is not bean bag we’re playing here. It’s a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of citizens of the U.S. and the world,” Pasco said. “The requirements for public safety today are
dramatically different than pre-Sept. 11. We’re adapting to that. And the civil-liberties people need to as well.”
“Anybody who has read about the Sept. 11 attacks can see that terrorists use libraries to contact compatriots and to do research to carry out their nefarious schemes,” Justice spokesman Corallo told WND. “We have an obligation to protect the American public from those schemes.”
In fact, FBI agents seized two computers from a Delray Beach, Fla., library because Sept. 11 hijackers are believed to have used the machines for communication.
“I believe in privacy, but if we know that someone has committed a crime, we’re not going to sit by and not say anything,” Kathleen Hensman, a reference librarian who remembers talking to the hijackers in the summer of 2001, told the San Jose Mercury News. “I would do it again, PATRIOT Act or not.”
Not all librarians share Hensman’s sentiment.
A survey of United States public libraries conducted by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign over a four-month period following Sept. 11 found increasing privacy concerns among librarians. Of the 1,028 libraries
responding, 7 percent reported having monitored patrons’ Internet use and nearly 15 percent saw circumstances in which the privacy of patrons could be compromised.
A follow-up survey conducted by the same researchers in October found librarians sharply divided over the issue of protecting patron privacy versus protecting public safety.
One respondent to the poll said, “Staff are trying to process their responsibilities as citizens in potential conflict with their responsibilities as employees of a public library.”
According to the survey respondents, federal and local law-enforcement officials visited at least 545 libraries to ask for records in the year following the terror attacks. Of these, 178 libraries received
visits from the FBI.
The number of libraries queried fell significantly below the 703 libraries reporting such requests the year before the terrorist events. But the researchers pointed out that the actual number of libraries confronted in the past year may be larger, because the gag-order provision of the PATRIOT Act could
have served as a deterrent to candid answers.
On the issue of the gag order, nearly 60 percent of librarians stated they viewed it as an abridgement of First Amendment rights. One in five feels strongly enough that they say they would probably or definitely challenge a court order regarding information about a patron by disclosing the request.
Asked whether they cooperated with law-enforcement requests for voluntary cooperation in providing for information about patrons’ reading habits and Internet preferences, the staff at 219 public libraries said they did, while staff members at 225 other libraries said they did not.
The ALA advises librarians to consult with lawyers when confronted with a search warrant. It also recommends library staff reduce its record keeping. Computers are being programmed to delete the cache memory, which keeps track of Internet usage, each time a new user signs on, and sign-up sheets for the public-access computers are now typically discarded at the end of the day.
These measures stem from concern over innocent library users getting caught up in federal agents’ zeal to snag terrorists before they strike.
Such was the case at a branch of the Charlotte-Glades County library system in Florida last July. The library was evacuated for three hours after a sheriff’s volunteer reported an Internet user he
deemed suspicious to local police. Officers subsequently searched the patron and found “chemicals of unknown origin” in his backpack, which turned out to be paint thinner and jewelry cleaner.
Authorities later learned the homeless man was surfing a website about an ancient battery, not bombs.
“Just because someone is taking out books on bombs, doesn’t mean they’ll build a bomb,” Freedman argued. “It suggests that if I read [Adolf Hitler’s] ‘Mein Kamph’ I’ll go out and kill Jews.”
Corallo stressed the PATRIOT Act does not target U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens – green card holders – but remains solely geared toward non-U.S. citizens who are “agents of foreign powers” or “members of terrorist groups.”
He also emphasized that every physical and electronic search still required a warrant granted by a
federal judge on the FISA court.
In December, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, a panel made up of three federal judges, gave the Justice Department a boost, overturning an earlier decision that Attorney General John Ashcroft was using the act to improperly broaden the FBI’s spying abilities.
“We have a system of checks and balances in this country,” said Corallo. “Congress is the authorized body of oversight. … It receives bi-yearly reports of FISA warrants.”
In June, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Ranking Minority Member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., wrote a letter to Ashcroft asking detailed
questions about how the PATRIOT Act has been used by agents in the field.
In October, the congressmen made public the Justice Department’s response. In four letters totaling 61 pages, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant said the act has “provided critical assistance
to the efforts of the department and the administration against terrorists and spies in the U.S.” but offered few specifics. Bryant repeatedly explained the details fall under the classification of “secret” and can only be shared with House Intelligence Committee members who have security clearances and are
sworn to secrecy.
In November, civil-liberties advocates followed up on the congressmen’s attempts at oversight.
The Freedom to Read Foundation, ALA’s sister organization, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression took
the Justice Department to court to elicit statistics on the number of times the federal government has used PATRIOT Act procedures to search records in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers and whether officials have publicly filed the search warrant requests.
The lawsuit comes after federal officials failed to respond to an Aug. 21, 2002 Freedom of Information Act request for the information.
“We are asking only for aggregate statistical data and other policy-level information,” David Sobel, general counsel to EPIC, said. “The release of this information would not jeopardize ongoing
investigations or undermine the government’s ability to respond to new threats.”
Responding to a court order, the Justice Department turned over some 200 “heavily redacted” pages earlier this month, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for
Intellectual Freedom of the ALA.
“We consider [the Justice response] not responsive,” Caldwell-Stone told WND. “I didn’t expect much better, given the secrecy stance of Ashcroft.” She anticipates further litigation.
Corallo defended the department’s response to the suit.
“We don’t believe we should be making classified national security documents public for every terrorist organization to see,” he argued. “Otherwise, we should paint a bull’s eye on our heads and let them come get us.”
“If they have a real problem with it, they should contact their congressman,” he added.
ALA’s resolution is an attempt to do just that. It urges Congress to:
- provide active oversight of the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act;
- hold hearings to determine the extent of the surveillance on library users;
- amend or change the sections of the law that threaten or abridge the rights of “inquiry and free expression”
The ALA plans to forward copies of the resolution to President Bush, Ashcroft, members of both houses of Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and to the library community.
Related special offers: