Anti-terrorism law puts librarians in middle

August 31, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

Almost two years after Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, there is still confusion among Tri-State area library officials over whether they should turn over patrons' records at the request of federal authorities.

The federal act was signed into law on Oct. 26, 2001 - 45 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that prompted the law. The act was intended to allow federal authorities more leeway in ferreting out foreign terrorists and those who assist them, but it has been widely criticized by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union who say it restricts Americans' liberties and weakens privacy guidelines.

One part of the law, Section 215, notes that the FBI director can apply for a court order to produce certain business records. While not specified in the law, this can include records at libraries and bookstores that show a patron's history of borrowed or purchased books, or sign-up sheets to use library computers with Internet access, U.S Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said.


Morgan County (W.Va.) Public Library Director Larry Springer said it was his understanding after a regional library meeting on Aug. 13 that the FBI had a right to library files without a court order.

"Wrong. Wrong. Wrong," Corallo said.

"That's just false. This is the problem. This is what is so outrageous," Corallo said.

The ACLU and the Justice Department accuse each other of putting out misinformation about the Patriot Act.

The ACLU's Web site at states that "without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records ... and can prevent anyone from telling you it was done."

David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU's Maryland affiliate, said that statement is true because the warrant under the Patriot Act does not resemble the warrant described under the 4th Amendment that requires probable cause.

If librarians or other people are reading the ACLU Web site statement to mean the FBI does not need to present a warrant to get access to library records or other business information, Rocah said that's a misunderstanding.

"That's not what we mean and that's not true," Rocah said.

Court order dispute

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI needs a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - or FISA - court to access library records, Corallo said.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director for the American Library Association's Washington office, said a FISA court order is "murky" because it has no requirement for probable cause. Also, library employees served with a FISA court order cannot tell the patron about the request, Sheketoff said.

Rocah said that means the target of the warrant does not have an opportunity to contest the warrant or subpoena.

However, Corallo said that's true of some regular court orders in which a judge determines whether there is a gag order and how long it lasts.

Federal authorities must convince a judge of certain facts to have a FISA order issued, Corallo said. The warrant cannot be sought until federal authorities have established the target may be involved in international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activity.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., voted in favor of the Patriot Act, but at the time had concerns about it encroaching on civil liberties, his spokeswoman Lisa Wright said. Bartlett is co-sponsoring a bill to exempt libraries and bookstores from Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Wright said.

Bartlett doesn't like that the target of the warrant cannot be notified when the warrant is served and thinks warrants for such places as a library must meet the stricter standards of probable cause, Wright said.

Pam Coyle, director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library, said "it seems like people are fighting over a minor distinction."

"I just think we're worrying about the wrong thing right now," Coyle said.

Librarians nationwide have enough to contend with as state cutbacks affect libraries' ability to afford personnel and books, she said.


Coyle said it was she who told Springer and other Eastern Panhandle librarians at the Aug. 13 meeting that the FBI didn't need a warrant because she had heard that from other librarians and from the American Library Association. Coyle said she planned to e-mail an update to Panhandle librarians clarifying the law.

"A lot of these librarians are getting misinformation, including myself, or not complete information," Coyle said.

Bernice Crouse, executive director of the Franklin County (Pa.) Library System, said system officials had some concern about the Patriot Act.

A recently approved confidentiality policy, which requires a court order for patron information to be shared, is supposed to be posted for patrons to see in each of the system's six libraries, including the bookmobile, Crouse said.

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