Libraries--Last Bastions of Freedom?

Civil rights proponents have reason to cheer. Last week, in a 238-to-187 decision, House leaders showed a rare display of unity when they thwarted President Bush's demand for a roundabout renewal of the PATRIOT Act.

[Ed. Note: We refuse to spell it Patriot Act, because it has nothing to do with patriotism, as its backers would like to have us believe. U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. is merely an acronym, cleverly conceived by the White House PR corps to pull Americans' heartstrings, for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."]

When Congress passed the act shortly after September 11, 2001, it included a sunset provision under which 15 of its current provisions expire by the end of this year unless they are reinstated--and, may we quote a 2003 Slate article, "this time around, some of the folks holding opinions have actually read the thing."

What's causing all the turmoil is Section 215, which allows the FBI to gain easy access to ordinary citizens' private information, such as library and bookstore records--a provision that has now been curbed by the joint force of 200 Democrats and 38 Republicans.

Republican House leaders, "not accustomed to losing", as the Washington Post puts it, were understandably miffed about the outcome. President Bush, who has repeatedly called for making all the expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act permanent, has openly threatened to veto the bill. Libertarians and organizations like the ACLU, on the other hand, have praised the vote as a rare victory for civil liberties.

Some GOP members concur, one of them House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio): "Everybody is against terrorism, but there has to be reason in the way that we fight it. The government doesn't need to be sifting through library records."

So, how afraid should you be of the PATRIOT Act and provisions like Section 215--as a law-abiding citizen who hasn't done anything wrong?

No one really knows... but many point out that the conspicuous hush-hush mentality the government has displayed around the issue is reason enough to be wary.

Reportedly, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, one of the fathers of the PATRIOT act, used to happily cite a 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, in which 91% of registered voters declared they didn't feel that the act had affected their civil liberties. Then again, how would they know? Section 215, for example, includes a gag order for the staff disclosing those records to government agents.

The website watchingjustice.org points out that "The Department of Justice has not been forthcoming about how it is using its new powers. For almost two years, for example, the Department did not reveal to Congress or to the public the number of times it had asked for library or business records under Section 215... stating that the information was classified. On September 18, 2003, however, a DOJ memo stated that Department officials had never obtained records under Section 215."

Which was a blatant lie, or, as political pundits prefer to say, "faulty intelligence." Indeed, claims watchingjustice.org, "an informal survey conducted by the Department [had indicated] that federal officers had contacted libraries about 50 times since September 11, 2001, presumably under the National Letter authority."

Joan Airoldi, director of the library district in Whatcom County, WA, can confirm that from her own experience--and did, in a 2004 article she wrote for USA Today.

On June 8, 2004, an FBI agent dropped by at the Deming library in Whatcom County, requesting a list of everybody who had borrowed a biography of Osama bin Laden. The librarians refused and called an attorney, who then demanded a good reason why the library should provide the list. Apparently one of the library's patrons had alerted the FBI when he found a handwritten note in the margin, "If the things I'm doing are considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."

A Google search found that the words "were almost identical to a statement by bin Laden in a 1998 interview," writes Airoldi. Nonetheless, the FBI served a subpoena to the library, demanding a list of every patron who had borrowed the book since November 2001... but the librarians kept pushing back, until finally, 15 days later, the FBI withdrew its request.

"Our trustees faced a difficult decision," Airoldi admits. "It is our job to protect the right of people to obtain the books and other materials they need to form and express ideas. If the government can easily obtain records of the books that our patrons are borrowing, they will not feel free to request the books they want. Who would check out a biography of bin Laden knowing that this might attract the attention of the FBI?"

And we all know where "suspected terrorists" end up these days.

The last word hasn't been spoken in the matter of Section 215; but in light of the fact that President Bush hasn't vetoed one bill in his entire time in office, it would certainly not be his smartest move to start with this one.

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Posted 06-21-2005 10:56 PM by Doug Casey