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
"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
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
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
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."
CCLE Readers Rights