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Libraries Under Siege by Patriot Act(amsellem)

cartoon © 2003 by charles amsellem. all rights reserved. activists may reproduce for non profit use
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"The FBI has the right to obtain a court order to access any records we have of your transactions." Those words mark notices posted by conscientious Santa Monica, California librarians. Similar notices have been posted in several other libraries across the southland.(1) Those signs may be the only avenue of free expression left to our cities' curators when the inappropriately named USA PATRIOT Act rears its ugly head into the picture. Section 215 of the Patriot Act paves the way for law enforcement to peer into our reading habits and internet activity, not only at our nation's libraries but in bookstores as well. Furthermore, the act criminalizes anyone at any of those institutions who reveals that a warrant has been served on their patrons.(2)

South Pasadena city librarian, Terri Maguire, sums up the concerns of many biblio-caretakers and retailers across the country: "Privacy and access to information are important to libraries. Do we have an obligation to inform our patrons? We decided that yes, we did."(3) Not so long ago, when our civil rights exited on paper, law enforcement officials were required to show probable cause to a judge, and recieve a court order before gaining legal access to our reading lists and internet activity logs. Now, these court orders are issued in secret federal courts who readily hand out permissions for such privacy violations at the hands of agencies like the FBI with minimal restraint.(4) In response, 32 organizations and businesses across the country including the American Library Association (ALA), the California Library Association, the Association of Ameriacan Publishers, Barne's and Noble, Border's Books, and others have rallied to publicly condemn provision 215 of the Patriot Act.(5) The ALA has reaffirmed our privacy rights and directed library staff to be very protective of any sensitive information regarding its patrons: "Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and free association."(6)

On May 20, 2003, the House Judiciary Committee investigating the ramifications of the Patriot Act compelled the Department of Justice to admit that the FBI has visited 50 libraries within a year of Sept 11, 2001. While Emily Sheketoff, director of the ALA's Washington office was releaved by this revelation as official proof that the feds are actively engaged in our libraries, she revealed that "[they] haven't been fully forthcoming."(7) An anonymous survey conducted by the Library Research Center provides a clearer picture than the DOJ's clearly glossed over figures. The survey was sent to 1, 505 of the nation's 5094 U.S. public libraries that serve a population of greater than 5000. Out of only 906 respondents, the following statistics were revealed: One year after 9-11, federal and local law officials asked 545 libraries for their records and 178 libraries recieved visits from the FBI. Even these numbers paint an optomistic picture of reality since 130 libraries didnt fully answer the anonymous survey questions. The warning statement detailing the provisions of the Patriot Act as it relates to respondents further inhibited participation and truthful disclosures in the survey. Again, it is illegal for the librarians to answer these questions under section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act!(8)

Those who criticize opposition to the Patriot Act often cite the events of 9-11 as the reason why we need to relax restrictions on law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Yet revelations by the secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act) court in an opinion issued on May 2002 indicate that these agencies apparent contempt for our civil liberties didnt aid them in preventing the September 11 atrocities. The FISA court made public that in September of 2000, "the government came forward to confess errors in 75 FISA applications related to major terrorist attacks directed against the United States-the errors related to misstatements and ommissions of material facts." In March 2001, "the government reported similar misstatements in another series of FISA applications in which there was supposed to be a 'wall' between seperate intelligence and criminal squads in FBI field offices to screen FISA intercepts, when in fact all of the FBI agents were on the same squad and all of the screening was done by the one supervisor overseeing both investigations."(9) The location and nature of these operations were not cited.

In 1976, the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operations, headed by Sen Frank Church, condemned the method's of the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). The committe described their methods as, "indesputably degrading to a free society." COINTELPRO was described as a "sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." That FBI program was a far reaching illegal effort to spy upon and ruin activists, most of whom were innocent law abiding citizens. Despite Sen Church's promise that "never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers a threat to the established order." The methods of COINTELPRO have continued up until today. Indeed, they enjoy renewed vigor under the Patriot Act.(10)

In the post-9/11 world, the rat is king. That is, the FBI and local cops can capitalize on informant tips, whom also largely remain annonymous to destroy people's lives. The New York Times reported that false tips on terrorism have already ruined the lives of many people. Those peaceful citizens found themselves jailed, uprooted, unemployed and one even lost custody of his children and was forced to leave the country. All of the above on FALSE tips! Four individuals found their names listed in a national crime registry as "accused of terrorism," even though they were never charged. Subsequently the four men were unable to board an airplane, rent a home, or find any work. These too, are the victims of false tips.(11)

These events and others like them have prompted 3 state governments and more than a hundred counties and municipalities across the country to pass resolutions condemning the patriot act. The people of Alcata, California elected a city council, some of whom believe that the federal government has gone stark raving mad. They passed a law making it illegal for government employees to cooperate with the feds when they invoke the Patriot Act.(12) Resistence to these repressive measures is thankfully growing and, hopefully, the day will come again soon when our civil rights exist (at least on paper).

(1)Pelisek, Christine, Check THIS Out, Libraries Quietly Sound Alarm Against Patriot Act; LA Weekly, July, 4-10, 2003, p3
(2)Estabrook, Leigh S.; Lakner, Edward; Lou, Lidan; Michel, Anitz; Public Libraries And Civil Liberties: A Profession Divided, The Library Research Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
(3)Check THIS Out
(4)Trudeau, Dan, Privacy Bill to Prevent FBI Info Probes, The Michigan Daily, March 4, 2003
(5)Check THIS Out
(6)Flanders, Laura, Librarians Under Siege, The Nation, July, 25, 2002
(7)Oder, Norman, FBI Has Visited About 50 Libraries, Library Journal, June 15, 2003
(8)Library Research Center(Public Libraries and Civil Liberties)
(9)Shenon, Philip, Secret Court Says FBI Aides Misled Judges in 75 Cases; New York Times, August, 23, 2002
(10)Solomon, Alisa Things We Lost in the Fire, The Village Voice, September 11-17, 2002
(11)Moss, Michael, False Terrorism Tips to FBI Uproot the Lives of Suspects, New York Times, June 19, 2003
(12)Check THIS Out

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