A librarian in Washington state stood up to the FBI after it demanded internal patron information – and she won.
Joan Airoldi, director of the library district in Whatcom County, Wash., between Seattle and Bellingham, told her story in an op-ed piece in USA Today.
“It was a moment that librarians had been dreading,” Airoldi writes in the opening of her column.
She explains that in June, an FBI agent stopped into one of the district’s branches and requested a list of people who had borrowed a biography of Osama bin Laden.
“We said no,” Airoldi wrote.
“We did not take this step lightly. First, our attorney called the local FBI office and asked why the information was important. She was told that one of our patrons had sent the FBI the book after discovering these words written in the margin: ‘If the things I’m doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.'”
It turns out that quote is quite similar to a line from a bin Laden statement uttered during a 1998 interview.
The library told the FBI it would have to go through legal channels to request the information, which it did. A week later, the agency served a subpoena on the library demanding a list of everyone who had borrowed the book since November 2001.
Wrote Airoldi: “Our trustees faced a difficult decision. It is our job to protect the right of people to obtain the books and other materials they need to form and express ideas. If the government can easily obtain records of the books that our patrons are borrowing, they will not feel free to request the books they want. Who would check out a biography of bin Laden knowing that this might attract the attention of the FBI?”
The library trustees, Airoldi explained, had to balance privacy rights with its desire to help the government fight terrorism. It decided to fight the subpoena in court, and 15 days later the FBI dropped its demand.
Airoldi mentioned the experience heightened her sensitivity to the ramifications of the USA Patriot Act:
“There is a shadow over our happy ending. Our experience taught us how easily the FBI could have discovered the names of the borrowers, how readily this could happen in any library in the USA. It also drove home for us the dangers that the USA Patriot Act poses to reader privacy.”
The librarian explains that since the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001, the FBI has the power to go to a secret court to request library and bookstore records considered relevant to a national security investigation. It does not have to show that the people whose records are sought are suspected of any crime or explain why they are being investigated. In addition, librarians and booksellers are forbidden to reveal that they have received an order to surrender customer data.
Concludes Airoldi: “Fortunately for our patrons, we were able to mount a successful challenge to what seems to have been a fishing expedition. If it had returned with an order from a secret court under the Patriot Act, the FBI might now know which residents in our part of Washington State had simply tried to learn more about bin Laden.
“With a Patriot Act order in hand, I would have been forbidden to disclose even the fact that I had received it and would not have been able to tell this story.”
In an e-mail praising Airoldi, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership warned of what it perceives as Patriot Act dangers.
“If somebody else’s margin scribble in a library book is enough to put you on the FBI’s suspect list, then do you have more liberty or less?” the group asks. “Secret courts with unreviewable court order powers – are these more a feature of free countries or of police states?”
The firearms group, believing “conservative” commentators are too supportive of the Patriot Act, concluded: “We salute Library Director Joan Airoldi’s courage, and that of her library’s board, in standing up for the rights of Americans. We challenge the conservative media community to applaud Ms. Airoldi also. Regretfully, we expect the conservative media folks to ignore the story totally, and that is a sad commentary indeed.”