Patriot Act blocks details of complaint against FBI
The lawsuit over a demand for records comes as Congress debates renewing the act
Houston Chronicle | August 26 2005
WASHINGTON - A member of the American Library Association has sued the Justice Department to challenge an FBI demand for records, but the USA Patriot Act prohibits the plaintiff from publicly disclosing its identity or other details of the dispute, according to court documents released Thursday.
The lawsuit comes as Congress prepares to enter final negotiations about renewal of the Patriot Act counterterrorism law, which was overwhelmingly approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But parts of the law, including provisions that could have an impact on libraries, have since come under fire.
Justice Department and FBI officials have repeatedly declined to identify how many times Patriot Act-related powers have been used to seek or obtain information from libraries, but they have strongly urged Congress not to limit their ability to do so.
The lawsuit, originally filed under seal in Connecticut on Aug. 9, focuses on the FBI's use of a document called a "national security letter," which allows investigators to demand records without the approval of a judge and to prohibit companies or institutions from disclosing the request. Restrictions on the FBI's ability to use NSLs were loosened under the Patriot Act.
The identity of the institution, the records being sought and numerous other details are edited out of the public version of the complaint released by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is a party to the lawsuit.
But the edited lawsuit reveals that the plaintiff is a member of the libraries association, that it provides "circulation and cataloging of library materials" and that it allows "library patrons ... to search library collections and check the status of their accounts."
The complaint also says the institution "provides Internet access for use by staff and patrons" and that the FBI was seeking "subscriber information, billing information and access logs" related to an unidentified target.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse declined to comment on the dispute because of the pending litigation.
ACLU lawyer Ann Beeson said the group is asking the court to lift a gag order that has been imposed in the case and said the dispute is directly relevant to the debate on Capitol Hill about the Patriot Act.
The House and Senate approved bills in July to renew or make permanent 16 provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year. Civil liberties groups are particularly opposed to the House version which, among other things, would allow those who violate a gag order in connection with an NSL to be sentenced to as much as five years in prison.
Patrice McDermott of American Library Association said the lawsuit "shows what we've been saying all along: that the FBI is indeed very interested in libraries."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during Senate testimony in April that the Justice Department "has no interest in rummaging through the library records or medical records of Americans" but that "libraries should not become safe havens" for terrorists or other criminals.
Gonzales said at the time that the FBI had never asked for records under a provision of the Patriot Act known by critics as the "library provision," which allows the government to demand records from a variety of businesses, including libraries, in intelligence probes.
But that provision is separate from the one that governs the kind of letter used in the Connecticut case.