Librarians Try to Alter Patriot Act
Bob Egelko and Maria Alicia
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday 10 March 2003
Santa Cruz Warns Readers that FBI May Spy on Them
Along with the usual reminders to hold the noise down and pay overdue fines, library patrons in Santa Cruz are seeing a new type of sign these days: a warning that records of the books they borrow may wind up in the hands of federal agents.
The signs, posted in the 10 county branches last week and on the library's Web site, also inform the reader that the USA Patriot Act "prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you."
"Questions about this policy," patrons are told, "should be directed to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 20530."
Library goers were swift to denounce the act's provisions.
"It's none of their business what anybody's reading," said Cathy Simmons of Boulder Creek. "It's counterproductive to what libraries are all about."
"I'm not reading anything they'd be particularly interested in, but that's not the point," said Ari Avraham of Santa Cruz. "This makes me think of Big Brother."
The Justice Department says libraries have become a logical target of surveillance in light of evidence that some Sept. 11 hijackers used library computers to communicate with each other.
But the signs ordered by the Santa Cruz library board -- a more elaborate version of warnings posted in several libraries around the nation -- are adding to the heat now being generated by a once-obscure provision of the Patriot Act.
Section 215 of the act allows FBI agents to obtain a warrant from a secret federal court for library or bookstore records of anyone connected to an investigation of international terrorism or spying.
Unlike conventional search warrants, there is no need for agents to show that the target is suspected of a crime or possesses evidence of a crime. As the Santa Cruz signs indicate, the law prohibits libraries and bookstores from telling their patrons, or anyone else, that the FBI has sought the records.
The provision was virtually unnoticed when the Patriot Act, a major expansion of government search and surveillance authority, was passed by Congress six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in the last year, Section 215 has roused organizations of librarians and booksellers into a burst of political activity, and is being cited increasingly by critics as an example of the new law's intrusiveness.
SANDERS' REPEAL BILL
Even as a leaked copy of a Bush administration proposal to expand the Patriot Act was circulating, Rep. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., introduced a bill last week to repeal the library and bookstore provisions -- the first bill in the House, and the second in Congress, seeking to roll back any part of the Patriot Act.
Sanders, who voted against the Patriot Act, said he decided to target a "particularly onerous" provision that affects large numbers of people. His Freedom to Read Protection Act would allow library and bookstore searches only if federal agents first showed they were likely to find evidence of a crime.
The bill's 23 co-sponsors include four Bay Area Democrats -- Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, Sam Farr of Carmel and Pete Stark of Fremont.
The Bush administration has refused to say how it has used Section 215 -- prompting a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by library and bookseller organizations -- and has made few public comments on the issue. One statement by a high-ranking Justice Department official, however, may have inadvertently helped to fuel the rollback efforts.
In a letter to an inquiring senator, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant said Americans who borrow or buy books surrender their right of privacy.
A patron who turns over information to the library or bookstore "assumes the risk that the entity may disclose it to another," Bryant, the Justice Department's chief of legislative affairs, said in a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
'INHERENTLY LIMITED' RIGHT
He said an individual's right of privacy in such records is "inherently limited" and is outweighed by the government's need for the information, if the FBI can show it is relevant to an "investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."
Bryant's letter, dated Dec. 23, was slow to surface publicly but is now being held up by library and bookstore associations as evidence of the menace of government surveillance.
"Bookstore customers buy books with the expectation that their privacy will be protected," said the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which represents independent bookstores. "If (Bryant) is in any doubt about this, he can ask Kenneth Starr, who outraged the nation by trying to subpoena Monica Lewinsky's book purchases."
"I find it profoundly disturbing that an assistant attorney general asserts that we have lost the right to privacy in that kind of information," said Deborah Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "The republic was founded on the premise that you don't have to share your thoughts."
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Bryant was merely pointing out that patrons voluntarily turn over information to libraries and bookstores and shouldn't be surprised if others learn about it. Corallo also said the provisions pose no threat to ordinary Americans, only to would-be terrorists.
Before demanding records from a library or bookstore under the Patriot Act, he said, "one has to convince a judge that the person for whom you're seeking a warrant is a spy or a member of a terrorist organization. The idea that any American citizen can have their records checked by the FBI, that's not true."
U.S. DECIDES WHO IS TERRORIST
Once the government decides someone is a terrorist, Corallo said, "We would want to know what they're reading. They may be trying to get information on infrastructure. They may be looking in the public library for information that would allow them to plan operations."
Responding to such positions, the leaders of the 64,000-member American Library Association passed a resolution in January calling the Patriot Act provisions "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users" and urging Congress to change the law.
And while the views of individual librarians are apparently more varied than those of their association, a recent nationwide survey found that most felt the Patriot Act went too far.
Nearly 60 percent of the 906 librarians who replied to a University of Illinois questionnaire between October and January believed that the law's so-called gag order -- which prohibits libraries from disclosing that the FBI has requested their records -- was unconstitutional.
Asked if they would defy an agent's nondisclosure order, 5.5 percent said they definitely would, and another 16.1 percent said they probably would -- even though the law makes such defiance a crime.
"At each board meeting I tell them we have not been served by any (search warrants)," she said. "In any months that I don't tell them that, they'll know."
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