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Gagged librarians break silence on Patriot Act

Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: Wednesday May 31, 2006

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Connecticut librarians spoke about their fight to stop the FBI from gaining access to patrons' library records at a news conference yesterday organized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and in a subsequent interview with RAW STORY.

The Librarians, members of Library Connection, a not-for profit cooperative organization for resource sharing across 26 Connecticut library branches sharing a centralized computer, were served with a National Security Letter (NSL) in August of last year as part of the FBI's attempt to attain access to patron's records.

The NSL is a little known statute in the Patriot Act that permits law enforcement to obtain records of people not suspected of any wrongdoing and without a court order. As part of the NSL, those served with the document are gagged and prohibited from disclosing that they have even been served.

The foursome of Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Jan Nocek were automatically gagged from disclosing that they had received the letter, the contents of the letter, and even from discussions surrounding the Patriot Act.

The librarians, via the national and Connecticut branches of the ACLU, filed suit challenging the Patriot Act on first amendment grounds.

"People ask about private and confidential things in the library setting… like about their health, their family issues and related books they take out … these are confidential and we did this to protect our patrons from authorized snooping," said Peter Chase, Vice President of Library Connection."

On September 9 of last year, a federal judge lifted the gag order and rejected the government's argument that identifying the plaintiff would pose a threat to national security.

Yet the government continued to appeal the case throughout the reauthorization debate, passionately arguing that not a single incident of civil liberties violations by the Patriot Act had occurred. By continuing the appeal, the government effectively silenced any evidence to counter their claims.

"This all happened during the reauthorization debate and the government was saying no one's rights were being violated," said George Christian, staff liaison for Library Connection and one of the plaintiffs in the case.

As the debate over the reauthorization of the Patriot Act heated up, the librarians and others gagged by the NSL had to watch in silence, intimately aware of dangers they believed were not being exposed.

"We could not speak to Congress until after the renewal of the Patriot Act," Said Barbara Bailey, President of Library Connection and one of four plaintiffs in the case.

Although the ACLU, representing the librarians, filed the case on August 9 of last year, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales decried any civil liberties violations in a Washington Post op-ed in December, stating that "There have been no verified civil liberties abuses in the four years of the [Patriot] act's existence."

The suit names Alberto Gonzales, Robert Mueller, and an un-named FBI official as the defendants in the case. The plaintiffs are collectively referred to in all court filings as simply John Doe.

"My testimony was informed not only by the successes of the act but also by my personal meetings with representatives from groups such as the ACLU and the American Library Association," wrote Gonzales in his Washington Post piece. During the reauthorization discussion, I asked that certain provisions be clarified to ensure the protection of civil liberties, and Congress responded."

After the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March of this year, the government stopped its appeals. Last Wednesday, the Connecticut librarians were finally allowed to say that they were the John Doe in the case, but they are still prohibited from discussing the case or the NSL.

"There are other people who have been served with these letters. We hope by our testimony that more people are aware of this and people are able to speak out," said Jan Nocek, Secretary for Library Connection and one of the four plaintiffs in the case.

"Our clients were gagged by the government at a time when Congress needed to hear their voices the most," said Ann Beeson, ACLU's lead attorney in the case. "This administration has repeatedly shown that it will hide behind the cloak of national security to silence its critics and cover up embarrassing facts. Every time the government invokes national security in defense of secrecy -- as they've done most recently with NSA wiretapping -- the American public should remember these four librarians."

It is unknown how many NSLs have been served and to whom. A University of Illinois survey conducted in 2002 found that out of roughly one thousand libraries asked, eighty five libraries said they were asked by law enforcement for patrons' records.

According to an ABC News report, Assistant Attorney General William Moschella told members of Congress "that 9,254 National Security Letters were issued in 2005 involving 3,501 people."

But much like his successor, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that the Patriot Act did not violate civil liberties and said that it has never been used to obtain library records.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department's inspector general issued no less than six reports to the relevant Congressional oversight committees indicating that there were no allegations of abuse and no violations of civil liberties since the original enactment of the Patriot Act days after the September 11, 2001 attacks.




 
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