Librarians Under Siege

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.

“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?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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