All posts by Jessamyn West

Hey, There’s a Federal Agent In My Book!

If you’re at all like me, hearing the word “patriot” lately makes you stop listening, reactively clench your fists, or recall that grand old phrase “I love my country, I just hate my government.” However, there is one patriot that is worth paying close attention to and that is the USA PATRIOT Act [USAPA]. This forced and awkward acronym stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism [Act] a 342 page forced and awkward piece of legislation passed in a hurry a month after September 11 by a scared and vengeful Congress who barely read it. “Appropriate tools” in this case, means expanded surveillance and monitoring abilities as well as significantly reduced checks and balances surrounding how these tools are used. And “terrorism” means, well, almost anything.

You should care about the PATRIOT Act if you frequent libraries or bookstores, use pay phones, use an Internet service provider, go to school, go to the doctor, use credit cards or banks, have a lawyer, leave the country, go to jail, belong to an activist organization, read alternative publications [like this one] or know anyone who is contemplating any of the above activities, or maybe if you’re just a fan of freedom or the Bill of Rights. Why? Because the assumptions you may be making about your privacy, and your right to it, may be all wrong. Your rights to do all of these things, or do them free of surveillance and/or harassment, have changed in the past two years.

One of the most talked about implications of these new powers is the privacy of library and bookstore patrons, or lack thereof. Previously, a government or police official that wanted patron information [such as lists of books checked out, Internet habits, or home addresses and phone numbers] had to have a subpoena issued by a court of law. Now they usually need a search warrant, and the warrant, which can be issued almost immediately, does not need to have a specific name on it. In other words, the FBI can go on snooping missions in libraries or bookstores, and go there solely for the purposes of “gathering intelligence” on everyone who may use the library, not necessarily to track down a particular suspected criminal. They can also install monitoring software on library computers without telling anyone it’s there.

The worst part of this new legislation is the associated gag order. If the FBI does come to your library, your librarian is forbidden by law to tell you or anyone else that they have been there, or what they did. If they installed surveillance equipment on the computers, they can’t tell you. If they asked for the list of the last 50 books you or everyone who uses the library checked out or purchased, they can’t tell you. The same is true for bookstore owners and employees. The USAPA creates an entirely new class of prosecutable criminal: librarians who tell the truth.

Many libraries have written privacy policies that spell out what information they will or will not share [see link below] that are themselves offshoots of state laws regarding privacy of library information — all states but Kentucky and Hawaii have laws making library records confidential.

In fact many of these state privacy laws are themselves a reaction to another misguided program, the FBI’s so-called Library Awareness Program in effect during the 1980’s. During this period, agents went to libraries and asked for information on patrons it considered “suspicious.” Backlash by librarians and resultant heightened visibility of the program itself brought an early demise to the FBI’s activities and more codified assertions of public library patron privacy.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has offered legal assistance to libraries who are facing, or have faced, federal investigators in their libraries [as long as the librarians don’t tell the OIF they have been served with a search warrant]. The USAPA has created a series of conflicting laws where state laws contradict the USAPA which itself contradicts the Bill of Rights. What’s a librarian to do?

While this is all chilling information, the next question is: are these dreaded visits actually happening? While no accurate count of federal agents’ visits to libraries can be made due to the [insane and illegal] gag order, a recent survey of 906 libraries done by the Library Research Center at the UIUC [see link below] found that nearly half the libraries surveyed reported a visit by state or local law enforcement or the INS, in the year following 9/11/01, as compared to less than 15% reporting similar visits in the previous year.

Libraries who have been visited by the FBI can’t mention that fact AFTER the visit, but many libraries and library systems are becoming pro-active and getting ready in case the feds do come to the door. To this end they have begun making staff and patrons aware of the Act and its implications. Some of them have begun tweaking their systems for greater patron privacy: tossing out Internet terminal sign-up lists at the end of the day; not requiring a card number or allowing pseudonymous Internet signups; removing patron borrowing records once a book has been returned; and in some cases, working within their communities to pass resolutions against the PATRIOT Act and pledging non-compliance in advance.

At this writing, San Francisco, Oakland, Arcata, West Hollywood, Yolo County, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Fairfax and Sebastopol California as well as Boulder CO, Madison WI, Ann Arbor and Detroit MI, Burlington and Montpelier VT, Eugene OR, Fairbanks AK, Mansfield and New Haven CT, Flagstaff AZ, Cambridge, Amherst, Leverett & Northampton MA, Takoma Park MD Alachua County FL and Santa Fe, NM have passed some form of resolution condemning the USAPA. Almost all of these resolutions were the result of grass roots and/or library agitation by the general public fed up with infringements on their rights. If your town or city isn’t on this list, perhaps you could help it get there.

Other organizations have been fighting back as well. In August 2002, the ACLU, the Freedom to Read Foundation, The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the Justice Department to disclose how it has been using the USAPA since its inception. They had gotten no response by October, so they filed a lawsuit with the US District Court for the District of Columbia demanding a response. In November, a judge ordered the government to respond to the request by January 15th of this year. In January, the government’s response was widely reported in the media:

“On that date, the government supplied 200 pages, most heavily redacted or blacked out so nothing can be read. None of the documents contained any of the information that had been requested. In the letter accompanying the released pages, the Justice Department made it clear that it would not supply any further information based upon the August FOIA request without further litigation.”

Clearly the US government isn’t too happy about sharing information about its program to force other agencies to share information.

The next big question is what can we all do to prevent, thwart, ridicule and generally combat intrusive government surveillance and intimidation in our lives? There are many levels of involvement, all of which are useful and like most activism, doing anything at all is preferable to staying home and waiting for a knock on the door. Here is a short list of things you can do that will help expose the USA PATRIOT Act as the total unconstitutional violation of our civil liberties that it really is:

  1. Inform yourself, follow these links below and learn what the USAPA is and what it is not. Make a point of telling people about it every day. Be aware of the many public places you go where you could be being spied on just for crossing the path of a “suspected terrorist.”
  2. Go to your library and talk to your librarians and library staff about the PATRIOT Act. Ask if they have a plan in case the FBI comes to their library. Ask them what privacy policies they have put in place. Remind them that it’s okay to tell people if the FBI *hasn’t* been in the library. Check out every book on Afghanistan and militias you can, and fill up the library computers’ Internet cache with articles on home made weaponry and drugs. Then, if the FBI comes to your door, tell everyone you know.
  3. If your community hasn’t yet passed a resolution against the PATRIOT Act, see if you can get one passed. Check out the sample resolutions online, or craft your own. Have community meetings and talk with people about their rights, and their privacy, and what should or shouldn’t be allowed in a free society. Get people’s honest opinions on the new legislation and its effectiveness in fighting terrorism.
  4. Write letters to elected officials. They passed it, they should deal with the repercussions. Tell them you are unhappy that they have sold out your freedoms for the sake of appearing “tough on crime.”
  5. Resist, in whatever form you think is appropriate, government’s attempts to silence or oversee you.

Further reading