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FBI drops demand for information from Connecticut library group

Published: Monday June 26, 2006

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The Federal Bureau of Investigations has conceded another legal victory to a group of Connecticut libraries, thereby ending the case entirely, RAW STORY has learned.

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 obtain access to patron's records.

The letter, acquired by RAW STORY, can be read here.

The NSL is a little known statute in the Patriot Act that permits law enforcement to obtain records of people not necessarily suspected of any wrongdoing, 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.

"When I and my colleagues received FBI National Security Letters demanding access to our patron's records, I knew that this power had had already been declared unconstitutional by a district court in New York," said Library Connection Vice President Peter Chase. "The government was telling Congress that it didn't use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one's rights had been violated."

The group sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union in arguing their case.

RAW STORY reported last month that the FBI had dropped its defense of the National Security Letter (NSL) gag provision after a federal judge lifted the gag order and rejected the government's argument that identifying the plaintiff would pose a threat to national security on September 9 of last year.

The libraries were never forced to comply with the demand and the records were never turned over to the authorities. According to the ACLU, the librarians might have been willing to comply with a similar demand if it had been approved by a judge.

The FBI has now abandoned the demand the request for information altogether.

The librarians have now disclosed the full NSL they received, which has never before been released in full. The letter indicates that the FBI had been seeking all records associated with a particular computer.

Many other court documents in the case remain technically under seal, including documents filed in the Supreme Court in an emergency appeal last fall.

"We pursued this matter because librarians should protect the privacy of our patrons," said George Christian, Executive Director of Library Connection. "Everyone has the responsibility to make sure the government plays by the rules."

The Connecticut case is one of two legal challenges brought by the ACLU against the NSL provision of the Patriot Act.

In New York, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous Internet Service Provider who received an NSL. In September 2004, Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York issued a landmark decision striking down the NSL statute and the associated gag provision. Judge Marrero will now rehear the case in light of revisions made by Congress.

While the NSL demands total secrecy from served libraries, the ACLU claims that the government was sloppy in its redaction of critical information relating to the case. The New York Times was the first to notice that Library Connection's name was revealed as was the identity of a "John Doe."

"Even though our identity was public due to their own mistakes, the government still insisted that we could not speak and we had the additional burden of having to deal with the press," said Library Connection Board President Barbara Bailey in a statement. "Fortunately for me, I was only contacted twice, and both times they received my voice mail at home and in the office. I didn't want people to think I was rude but I could not return the calls."

The information was published in September 2005, but the government waited until April--more than six weeks after the altered Patriot Act had been reauthorized by Congress--to drop its legal battle to keep the gag intact. It was a full month longer before the FBI dropped its request entirely.

The ACLU will continue to pursue the unsealing of all documents in the case and expects all of the documents to be made public soon.