FBI library records probe hits home
Greenwich Time | August 31, 2005
By Michael Dinan
Librarians are intently following the progress of a lawsuit after disclosures that federal agents have used the Patriot Act to try to seize users' records at a Fairfield County library.
A controversial provision of the Patriot Act, a landmark federal law passed a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, grants FBI officials unprecedented leeway in investigations.
Court papers indicate that the institution FBI officials demanded records from is a Bridgeport-area library -- the first confirmed instance of agents using the law in this way.
The proximity of that institution has changed what had previously been a strictly philosophical debate, said Alice Knapp, director of public services at the Ferguson Library in Stamford and president of the Connecticut Librarians Association. The professional organization represents more than 1,000 library staff, donors, patrons and trustees in the state.
"We thought this was going to be a problem and here it is a problem," Knapp said. "During the course of public debate about this, I think people used the word 'ludicrous' and 'baseless hysteria' to describe our opposition. What this really indicates is that the concerns that librarians have regarding the rights of patrons' privacy are justified."
Librarians have long opposed Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a provision that eases FBI access to library users' information. The provision invades privacy and undermines public institutions, librarians say.
Critics say agents can demand records without establishing "reasonable grounds" that the target is a criminal. Rather, the provision requires "relevance" to anti-terrorism efforts.
The revelation that the FBI demanded records from a Fairfield County institution has caused a buzz among librarians, according to Greenwich Library Director Mario Gonzalez.
"It's closer to home and it makes us stop and think and see what impact this law has on local libraries," said Gonzalez, a member of the Connecticut Library Association. "A lot of people are very concerned about it and want to know what develops out of this."
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday said that the FBI is demanding records "from an institution possessing a wide array of sensitive information about library patrons. . . ." That information includes library patrons' borrowing and Internet usage records, according to the ACLU.
Under the Patriot Act, officials at the affected institution -- a member of the American Library Association, according to the ACLU -- are prevented by a gag order from saying FBI agents approached them. Those under investigation also never know they're being tracked.
Librarians interviewed said they did not know which library FBI agents approached.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, seeking to lift that gag order and thereby open a public debate on the controversial provision. The lawsuit names U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, FBI Director Robert Mueller and an FBI official whose identity remains sealed.
The lawsuit, ACLU v. Gonzales, was filed Aug. 9. The Bridgeport court has scheduled an emergency hearing for today. Knapp said she would try to attend the hearing.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who favors the Patriot Act provision, said he feels as strongly now as he did before. Librarians opposed to the provision are unwittingly making their workplace a safe haven for terrorists, Shays said.
Shays said it "boggles" him that librarians -- who he said normally comply with other types of law enforcement investigations -- feel the need to oppose anti-terrorism probes.
"My first question is, how come librarians have not made an issue when, for years, records have been sought regarding organized crime, regarding drug dealings, regarding a whole host of criminal activity that the Justice Department has a right to go in and seek information?" Shays asked. "Why then, when you try to focus on terrorism, is this an issue? . . . I am dumbfounded that we would make it unacceptable to get information about a terrorist which could potentially save hundreds, if not thousands of lives."
As in Greenwich and Stamford, Westport Public Library minimizes the impact of the provision by preserving patrons' anonymity, said Assistant Director George Wagner, a member of the Connecticut Library Association. That's done by constantly clearing borrower information on book checkouts and using a nameless system to track Internet users.
Patrons of the Westport library are aware of the powers granted under the Patriot Act and are "genuinely concerned," Wagner said.
"I think people were kind of surprised that this wasn't reported to have happened sooner, although with the gag order you never know when it may have happened or how often," Wagner said. "We're all concerned about this, obviously, because it's another affront on people's privacy."