Mother Jones had a good article (print version) about the Connecticut librarians ["radical bookworms" in MJ's terms, oy!] who fought the USA PATRIOT Act. It’s a little overblown, in my opinion, but has a good sequence of events. Worth understanding that though the National Security Letter of USAPA was deemed unconstitutional, many other parts of the USA PATRIOT Act are still with us and will be into this next administration. More Daily Kos discussion on this topic yesterday.
National security letters are a little-known fbi tool originally used in foreign intelligence surveillance to obtain phone, financial, and electronic records without court approval. Rarely employed until 2001, they exploded in number after the Patriot Act drastically eased restrictions on their use, allowing nsls to be served by fbi agents on anyone—whether or not they were the subject of a criminal investigation. In 2000, 8,500 nsls were issued; by contrast, between 2003 and 2005 the fbi issued more than 143,000 nsls, only one of which led to a conviction in a terrorism case.
The EFF has just reported that the gag order provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act concerning National Security Letters are unconstitutional. This is NOT the Connecticut case, but a related one concerning the records of an internet service provider. Here is more explanation from the ACLU and a link to the decision (pdf). The decision claims this gag order provision of the USA PATRIOT Act is unconstituional because “it does not afford adequate procedural safeguardd, and because it is not a sufficiently narrowly tailored restriction on protected speech.”
This news came down while I was at ALA, but I was running around too much to write it down. The government has closed their investigation in the now-infamous case in Connecticut where librarians who work at Library Connection, Inc [a library ISP] challenged the constitutionality of the gag order involved with a National Security Letter, saying “[I]t had determined through other means that the case was meritless.” National Security Letters are a part of the USA PATRIOT Act worth knowing about.
The NSL is a legal oddity of the Patriot Act, and it allows the FBI to make a unilateral demand which would usually require court oversight. In effect, an NSL requires the FBI to police itself, making it similar to asking the fox to watch a mirror. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, it is estimated that some 30,000 NSLs are now sent out each year. An NSL also comes with the added bonus onus of never allowing the recipient to publicly discuss its contents, topic, or even existence. In other words, the recipient is supposed to get the NSL, comply with it, and pretend nothing ever happened.
The librarians had already seen the gag order lifted, so the closing of the investigation doesn’t add legal weight to this issue, but it does wrap up the incident somewhat nicely. If you read all the way through the article, please check out the discussion on this page containing my favorite “go go librarian” quote of the week.
Librarians have long been the unsung defenders of our (US) privacy and open access. Publicly funded libraries are nearly as important as free education IMO.
Astonishing most people still don’t know they can call their library and ask for answers to most any question. Are there monkeys in Borneo? What is that goop on scratch tickets? Who owned my building in 1881? The reference librarian predates the web and the ‘net and is still sometimes better because he or she is trained specifically for the task: masters degrees in finding and sorting information AND privacy. Want to read that obscure 1938 SF title? Interlibrary Loan for the win.
Girl librarians are also hot. Recommended for geek dating: smart, techy goodness. I speak from experience, lived with one for seven years.
Plaintiffs in Doe v. Ashcroft — the lawsuit that questioned the gag order provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, the one that the government decided not to appeal — tell their story at an ACLU press conference. They are employees of the Library Connection. Here are the official statements of George Christian, Janet Nocek, Barbara Bailey and Peter Chase.
It was galling for me to see the government’s attorney in Connecticut, Kevin O’Connor, travel around the state telling people that their library records were safe, while at the same time he was enforcing a gag order preventing me from telling people that their library records were not safe. On one occasion, we were both invited to speak at the same event in Hartford, sponsored by the Women’s League of Voters. Mr. O’Connor accepted his invitation, but I had to refuse mine because of the gag order.
The US Government has abandoned its pursuit of an appeal to a struck-down gag order against the Connecticut librarian who had received a demand for library records by the FBI. In short, the gag order is lifted and this is good news.
The case, Doe vs Gonzales, concerned a librarian who was served with a National Security Letter (NSL). The librarian [identified as George Christian in other newspapers], who appears to already have been an outspoken advocate of intellectual freedom, objected to the gag order [biggish pdf, a few screenshots here] disallowing him from speaking to his own library, the CT Library Assocation or the American Library Association about this issue. He argues that the gag order prevented him from creating effective policies should such a thing happen again, and prevented him from educating other libraries about the existence and specifics of NSLs.
A few things have happened with the USA PATRIOT Act in the last week or so. The act was reauthorized, most of it indefinitely. Notably, Section 215 was changed somewhat and authorized for another four years. Library Journal has a blurb on how this affects libraries which is worth reading. I noticed that ALA President Michael Gorman had issued a statement about the reauthorization which had cycled off the main page of ALA by the following morning. I posted a note about this to the Council list (excellent archiving software that breaks all hyperlinks, huh?) and his response is back on the main page. Nothing on the main page of the Washington Office. Nothing on the main page of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, though both have fought against the USA PATRIOT Act since the beginning and do have a lot of information buried in their sites.
I was asked for a statement about the renewal and had been spending so much time with a close eyeball on my local Senators (who both voted against it) that I wasn’t entirely on top of it. You can hear a quickie interview with me on Moby Lives Radio (MP3 file). Suffice to say that I’m not mollified by the changes to Section 215 and I’m still concerned about this Act’s implications for the privacy of all library users.
I’ve been messing a bit with possible commenting options. My apologies for people who saw non-functional comment links. This was in my inbox a few times whn I got back from a weekend trip to Western MA: At F.B.I., Frustration Over Limits on an Antiterror Law
One internal F.B.I. message, sent in October 2003, criticized the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review at the Justice Department, which reviews and approves terrorist warrants, as regularly blocking requests from the F.B.I. to use a section of the antiterrorism law that gave the bureau broader authority to demand records from institutions like banks, Internet providers and libraries.
“While radical militant librarians kick us around, true terrorists benefit from OIPR’s failure to let us use the tools given to us,” read the e-mail message, which was sent by an unidentified F.B.I. official. “This should be an OIPR priority!!!”
I’m sure it’s lousy to be one of the people who have to use and implement policies that are controversial and/or of questionable legality. However, the pullquote made me smile just the same.