Librarians Under Siege
It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism,
but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get
librarians to spy. Under an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act,
federal agents can obtain a warrant to acquire information about library
users. According to a recent survey, agents have been showing up at libraries--a lot--asking librarians for reading
records. Nearly everything about the procedure--from the granting of the
warrants to the search itself--is secret (as an excellent story in the
San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently). But, unlike in the
cold war years, when the FBI last tried to conduct such library
surveillance, this time around, top librarians are on the warpath to
protect reader privacy. And Congress wants Attorney General John
Ashcroft to account for his agents' library conduct.
It wasn't like this back in George W.'s daddy's day.
Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated a secret
counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back
then the Feds were particularly concerned about what Soviet bloc
citizens were reading in the nation's premier science libraries. In the
words of Herbert Foerstel, a science librarian in those years, "Agents
would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash
a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of
'sensitive but unclassified' information."
Today, with Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in hand, law enforcement
agents are at it again. This time, the stated purpose is to gather
information on people the government suspects of having ties to
terrorists or plotting an attack. The act makes it hard to track just
what's going on. Anyone who receives an FBI request is prohibited, under
threat of prosecution, from revealing the FBI visit to anyone, even to
the patron whose records are subject to search.
On April 3 I interviewed Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the
American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, on
Working Assets Radio, and the interview illustrated the problem. To
paraphrase: Flanders: "How many libraries have received information
requests from the FBI?" Stone: "They are not allowed to tell us, and we
are not allowed to say."
But in February one enterprising library sciences professor sent a
survey to 1,503 libraries around the country. Dr. Leigh Estabrook asked
librarians for answers to a set of questions, to which they did not have
to append their name. According to Estabrook's raw data, presented this
spring at a Public Library Association conference, eighty-five of the
libraries surveyed report that authorities (for example, FBI or police)
requested information about their patrons pursuant to the events of
September 11. More worrisome, about one-fifth of the libraries said
staff had changed their attitude toward or treatment of users in some
way. More than 10 percent (118) reported that they had become more
restrictive of Internet use. Seventy-seven said they had monitored what
patrons were doing.
Librarians on the alert aren't necessarily a bad thing. In Florida, an
attentive Delray Beach librarian reported the use of her library by a
group of Middle Eastern men, and they turned out to have connections to
the attacks of 9/11.
But some of this monitoring may be illegal. Since the abuses of the cold
war, almost every state has passed confidentiality laws to protect the
privacy of personal records. Since passage of the USA Patriot Act, the
American Library Association has been busy reminding librarians of their
abilities to question things like federal search warrants and advising
them of the best practices to undertake to protect confidentiality of
patrons and themselves. In January, the ALA released a set of guidelines
to inform librarians of what search warrants were, what subpoenas were
and how they could react if in fact they were presented with such
documents. Then in June, the ALA's governing council passed a resolution
publicly affirming the privacy rights of patrons and implicitly
instructing library staff to do all they can to protect their clients'
"Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and
free association," says the ALA council statement, in part. It wouldn't
be a bad idea for librarians to post the statement in the stacks.
Concerned library readers should also know that one sure-fire way to
keep your reading records private is to take back your borrowed books on
time. The ALA's Stone told Working Assets Radio that the circulation
software most libraries use today automatically erases a reader's
borrowing record once a book is returned and all fines are paid.
Congress is getting interested as well. On June 13 a bipartisan
committee sent a twelve-page letter to John Ashcroft demanding details
on the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Representative James
Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, the staunch conservative chair
of the House Judiciary Committee, and Michigan Democrat John Conyers,
the progressive, ranking Democrat, want to know, among other things,
just how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to libraries,
bookstores and newspapers under Section 215 and what safeguards are in
place to prevent abuse. The letter asked for written answers by July 9,
which at presstime had yet to be received; then Sensenbrenner and
Conyers plan to hold hearings on the response. Are G-men harassing your
librarian? The hearings should make for good, hot summer viewing on
C-Span. Meanwhile, library staff are under a lot of pressure--why not
drop by or write to your librarian and send a message of support?