Friday, July 01, 2005

Pennsylvania Libraries Vs. The U.S. Government

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports on Patriot Act mania in Pennsylvania libraries. Have the provisions of the Act pertaining to libraries been put to use by federal agents locally?

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, FBI agents may have visited some public and university libraries across Pennsylvania seeking information about the reading habits of patrons.

But librarians won't talk about it because, under a provision in the USA Patriot Act, to do so is against the law.

When it was discovered that several of the 9-11 hijackers had visited public libraries for information used in planning the attacks, libraries became potential resources for terrorism investigations.

Despite the "gag order" provision, which prohibits revealing details of specific investigations, there has been an attempt to tally the number of visits by federal investigators:
Since 2001, law enforcement agencies have made 74 legal requests for patron information across the nation, according to Bernadette Murphy, communications director for the American Library Association.

In each case, the libraries complied, Murphy said. She added that the agents' visits are causing alarm among librarians and patrons.

"A lot of librarians don't want to talk about this," Murphy said. "They're fearful of breaking the law because of the gag order or the fact there's an ongoing probe. They're just fearful of talking about any law enforcement activities. We believe there is significant patron concern."

Having worked with librarians for several years now, I have noticed that most librarians don't act on things like this out of "patron concern". They do it because their political sensibilities have been offended. Would they have the same problems with the Patriot Act had it been passed by a Democrat Congress with a Democrat President in office? Probably. Most Democrats are too right-wing for the academic librarians that I know. But there would have been less of an outcry than there is against the Republican Congress and Administration.

Getting back to the Act -- where does it give the FBI permission to charge into a library and seize patron records?
There is no provision in the Patriot Act that specifically allows agents to obtain patron information. What concerns librarians and civil liberties groups is Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain "any tangible things" from libraries, bookstores, hospitals and businesses through a grand jury subpoena, search warrant or National Security Letter for a terrorism investigation. That section is due to expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress renews the act.
When was the FBI ever not able to do any of that? Even if the act expires, the FBI would still be able to conduct investigations using "due process" (subpoenas, warrants etc.).

Speaking of the FBI, have you noticed that we never get their side of the story? This has all been reported from the librarians' point of view so far. What does the FBI have to say?

FBI spokesman Jeff Killeen in Pittsburgh said the requests are legal but "rare," adding that the FBI has better things to do than snoop on people's reading habits.

"This vehicle is out there," Killeen said. "It is available to the FBI to use to get information that is logically related to national security investigations. It's lawful and can be used. But it's rare. The FBI does not have the time or desire to go out and determine what people are reading."

Killeen said he cannot discuss national security investigations because they are classified. He said he can recall only one investigation in the Pittsburgh area in which patron information was obtained from a public library in a case that involved a sexual predator.

In other words, FBI investigation into library usage has been minimal, and when it has been done, there was a just cause.

I greatly admire librarians. I have even thought about becoming one myself. Their services greatly benefit schools, communities and businesses all around. Yet the majority of those who choose to enter the profession lean to the left politically, and they tend to see themselves as more than just librarians. They want to effect changes to society. They may not want to control, but they certainly want to influence. The Patriot Act has given them their best opportunity yet. After all, what better way to advance the cause of socialism than to oppose an increase in government power?

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