FBI trawls libraries for terrorist readers
London Guardian | June 21 2005
The bookish calm of a public library might not seem like the most obvious place to hunt for terrorists, but according to a report, the FBI and other US law enforcement agencies involved in counter-terrorism have made more than 200 requests for information about borrowers from libraries since September 11.
A list of people who had borrowed a book about Osama bin Laden was among the information to have been demanded since the introduction of the patriot act, the legislation that has enhanced the government's powers to investigate alleged terrorist activity after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
The power to subpoena library records has been fiercely resisted by the American Library Association, which believes it could put people off reading certain books or subjects.
It commissioned the study after the justice department sought to play down the likely number of requests for library records.
"What this says to us is that agents are coming to libraries and they are asking for information at a level that is significant, and the findings are completely contrary to what the justice department has been trying to convince the public [of]," Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the library association's Washington office, told the New York Times.
The use of the patriot act to request information from librarians came to public attention last year when a library in Washington state received a demand for information after a user took out a book on Bin Laden and found a handwritten note in the margin that said: "Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."
The borrower went to the FBI who in turn went to the library seeking names and information on borrowers who had taken out the biography since 2001.
The library turned down the request and fought a subsequent subpoena.
Critics claim that the patriot act is an infringement of civil liberties and that it has increasingly been the subject of debate in Congress.