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The World This Week: Library Cards

Does Big Brother know what you're reading?

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

It sounds like the plot to a new Monty Python Broadway musical, Spy-a-lot:

You are a librarian in a quiet town. One day a government spy—played by Eric Idle sporting a greasy moustache and doing his nod-nod-wink-wink routine—hands you a "secret letter" demanding your borrowers' records and computer files. You are not to discuss this with anyone, and you may not contest the demand in court. Just to be on the safe side, don't even make eye contact with the spy. Simply back away from the checkout counter and tiptoe, preferably cowering, toward the stacks. The spy will let you know when he's done. And when he's gone, you are to pretend none of this ever happened. Nod nod, wink wink.

Essentially, this is what the Patriot Act allows the FBI to do. The FBI can issue "National Security Letters" (NSLs) and, without court order, search any library file in America for any reason it deems appropriate. Since this is done in secret, with librarians facing prison time—after they're convicted in secret court—if they peep, we never know if the searches are for "national security" and not simply "dirty tricks." Given the performance of our government in the past eight years in regards to civil liberties, do we really want to give such powers away without a peep?

Back in 2005, four Connecticut librarians decided that, no, this would not be a good idea. One of the librarians, Janet Nocek, director of the Portland Library in Portland, is featured in a timely new book, We Will Be Heard: Voices in the Struggle for Constitutional Rights Past and Present (Merrell). The other three are George Christian, executive director of Windsor-based Library Connection, a consortium of 27 libraries in the state; Peter Chase, director of Plainville Public Library; and Barbara Bailey, director of Welles-Turner Memorial Library in Glastonbury. For their efforts, they earned the American Library Association's 2007 Paul Howard Award for Courage.

Nocek said the FBI came to the state demanding library records "without showing any evidence of suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law. Our mission is to let people have a free exchange of information and free access to information without feeling that someone's looking over their shoulder." She lost a friend in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, so she knows "how horrible a terrorist attack is& But, to me, the terrorists win if we give up what makes this country what it is."

With the help of the ACLU, the librarians contested the NSL and its "gag order," sparking a bizarre series of legal maneuvers culminating in a secret trial in Bridgeport (which they were only allowed to watch by closed circuit TV from Hartford). The federal judge in Bridgeport (Janet Hall) ruled in the librarians' favor, but the government appealed the case. While the appeal was pending—with the gag order still in place—the spineless U.S. Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act, removing the statute about the gag order but leaving the court-order-less NSLs intact.

"We wanted to protect patrons' privacy because these letters came with no court order," says Chase. "If they were using the letters to pursue terrorists, why were they afraid to go to a court to get an order? And we wanted people to know that this sort of spying was going on."

While the law has been softened, the legal process is prohibitively stacked in the government's favor. "We thought civil liberties had been restored, but there is no way to win if you do contest the letters," says Chase. "And librarians face a five-year prison term if they do speak about it."

According to the Washington Post, the FBI issues 30,000 NSLs per year. An Internet service provider who refused to obey an NSL, known only as John Doe, faces trial Aug. 27 in a Manhattan U.S. appeals court. To learn more about this issue, check the Northampton-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee's website www.bordc.org.

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