Who's tracking what you read?
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..."
-- Fourth Amendment to the Constitution
Concerned by world events, US citizen Jane Doe checked out several books on the Middle East and modern Islam from her public library, including one title that the government considers hostile to US policies. Now, her boss is getting calls from the FBI asking if she's revealed any signs of "subversive activity."
Pursuing an engineering degree, Arab exchange student Yusuf Nasser buys a technical analysis of the US electricity distribution grid. The next thing he knows, his student visa is called up for a review much more intense than that given his classmates from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
The only grounds for these (hypothetical) federal investigations: the books they bought or borrowed.
Back to the Cold War
Under Section 215 of the new so-called USA Patriot Act, the FBI may require bookstores and libraries to hand over lists of who has bought or borrowed which books, while threatening owners and staff with jail for revealing that these formerly confidential records have been taken. These investigations, of US citizens or foreigners alike, may be launched without any evidence of a crime being committed or planned, and without oversight by other federal officials--unlike the procedures required for any other search warrant.
Librarians and the FBI have been down this road before. In a Cold War initiative that began in 1973, the FBI visited science libraries around the nation under a project known as the Library Awareness Program, asking library staff about the reading habits of anyone with a foreign-sounding name or accent.
After the program was discovered in 1986, many library users felt they could no longer trust libraries and were no longer willing to ask reference questions if they thought the topic was controversial. Those fears appeared to subside when state governments passed laws, now in effect in every state except Kentucky and Hawaii, making library records confidential.
But, as federal law the "Patriot" Act overrides state confidentiality laws, prompting concerns from library and bookstore organizations about possible effects on readers.
Civil libertarians call the program an attack on privacy and freedom of thought. Associations of libraries and bookstores are advising their members not to make or keep any records they don't need.
The American Library Association, in guidelines adopted in January, advised the nation's librarians to "avoid creating unnecessary records" and to record information identifying patrons only "when necessary for the efficient operation of the library."
Some libraries have already been contacted. In a nationwide survey of 1,020 public libraries in January and February of 2002, the University of Illinois found that 85--or 8.3 percent--of them had been asked by federal or local law enforcement officers for information about patrons related to September 11.
The FBI hasn't said why agents would seek such information or what they would do with it. Michael Woods, until recently head of the FBI's National Security Law Unit, told an American Library Association meeting in January that the Bureau would follow all legal guidelines. He didn't deny the possible implications; he just kept trying to tell them it wasn't as bad as they thought.
The response was, "How would we ever know?"
No Checks, No Balances
Concern about the government seizing excessive power is a long-standing American tradition, going back to the framers of the Constitution. Giving priority to freedom over "efficiency," they created a system limited by checks and balances and restrained by a Bill of Rights--a system now endangered by what many call the "national security state." The United States has gone through similar hysterias before--and has always regretted them later. For example, anti-Communist "witch hunts" of the early Cold War era led to countless abuses of American citizens by the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee and other governmental bodies.
When the whole apparatus of governmental spying and manipulations finally hit bottom with the self-destruction of Richard Nixon's presidency during the Watergate scandal, Congress passed a series of reforms to prevent such excesses from happening again: for example, they required that some evidence of criminal activity be present before federal agents could infiltrate peaceful groups of citizens, churches, professional associations, etc.
Panic in 2001
Nearly all of those protections have been swept away during the panic which followed the terrorist crimes of September 11, 2001.
As if hordes of frothing terrorists were at that moment charging the border, the following month Congress passed the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" [USA-PATRIOT Act] without the usual process of committee hearings, amendments or debate. Few if any of our elected legislators had a clear idea of what was in the 342 pages of law they had just swept into being.
Now the whole raft of questionable new federal powers--to wiretap, read email, search homes without notification, hold prisoners indefinitely without bringing charges, define "domestic terrorism" almost any way they choose, and to secretly obtain almost any business records, including, yes, lists of what you've been reading, are in the hands of an administration already well known for blatant cronyism and raw opportunism.
From White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer's Orwellian response to a political satirist, "Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is" to the recent report by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (hardly a bunch of bleeding-heart civil libertarians) that the FBI had lied in at least 75 cases when seeking wiretap warrants, the Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft administration has proved time and again that the Founders were right to insist that government's powers should be limited and divided among separate branches, each subject to public review.
The worst that fanatics such as Osama bin Laden and his followers can do to America is to kill people and destroy buildings--painful wounds, yes, but our country has survived much worse.
The damage which panicky over-reaction and manipulative politicians can inflict on our national fabric can be much longer-lasting and destructive. Foreign terrorists, armed with box-cutters or bombs, can't touch the United States Constitution or our freedoms as American citizens--only an "inside job" can weaken us where it counts most, and only if we allow it.
The Campaign to Restore Civil Liberties encourages you to resist both violent attacks and short-sighted power grabs. Stand up for freedom, by telling the public officials whose job is to serve you that Benjamin Franklin was correct when he said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
An open discussion of the current threats to our freedom will be held at the "Preserving the Constitution After 9/11" town forum at the Thelma Boltin Center, 516 NE 2nd Avenue, on Saturday, 10/19, 1-5 PM, sponsored by the Civic Media Center. On Tuesday, 10/22, CRCL will ask the Alachua County Commission to pass a resolution, similar to ones recently approved in several cities across America, calling for the restoration and preservation of our civil liberties.
We hope you will join us in these activities and more to protect an America which truly maintains "liberty and justice for all."
This article is based on a handout being distributed by the Campaign to Restore Civil Liberties (CRCL) at Gainesville libraries and bookstores, which incorporates part of a story by Bob Egelko published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 6/23/02, available on the Web here
Who We Are
The Campaign to Restore Civil Liberties is a project of the Community Coalition Against War & Terrorism, the Civic Media Center, Veterans for Peace, the Quaker Meeting Peace & Social Concerns Committee, the North Central Florida Green Party, and the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice.
Gainesville's Community Coalition Against War and Terrorism was formed shortly after 9/11 to oppose over-reactions in the "war on terror". You're invited to contact us -
- for more information on our goals, projects and regular meetings (presently scheduled Thursdays from 7 to 9 PM at the Emmanuel Mennonite Fellowship Hall, 1320 W. Univ. Ave (most easily entered from rear on NW 1st Ave).
Beth Scrivener (l) and Caite York hold signs outside the Alachua County Public Library to alert the public to provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act which requires libraries to give the FBI information on who checked out what books. The event is part of a new "Campaign to Restore Civil Liberties."
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