Librarians under Siege
Flanders, Laura, The Nation
It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism, but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get librarians to spy. Under an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, federal agents can obtain a warrant to acquire information about library users. According to a recent survey, agents have been showing up at libraries--a lot--asking librarians for reading records. Nearly everything about the procedure--from the granting of the warrants to the search itself--is secret (as an excellent story in the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently). But, unlike in the cold war years, when the FBI last tried to conduct such library surveillance, this time around, top librarians are on the warpath to protect reader privacy. And Congress wants Attorney General John Ashcroft to account for his agents' library conduct.
It wasn't like this back in George W.'s daddy's day.
Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated a secret counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back then the Feds were particularly concerned about what Soviet bloc citizens were reading in the nation's premier science libraries. In the words of Herbert Foerstel, a science librarian in those years, "Agents would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of 'sensitive but unclassified' information."
Today, with Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in hand, law enforcement agents are at it again. This time, the stated purpose is to gather information on people the government suspects of having ties to terrorists or plotting an attack. The act makes it hard to track just what's going on. Anyone who receives an FBI request is prohibited, under threat of prosecution, from revealing the FBI visit to anyone, even to the patron whose records are subject to search.
On April 3 I interviewed Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, on Working Assets Radio, and the interview illustrated the problem. To paraphrase: Flanders: "How many libraries have received information requests from the FBI?" Stone: "They are not allowed to tell us, and we are not allowed to say."
But in February one enterprising library sciences professor sent a survey to 1,503 libraries around the country. Dr. Leigh Estabrook asked librarians for answers to a set of questions, to which they did not have to append their name. According to Estabrook's raw data, presented this spring at a Public Library Association conference, eighty-five of the libraries surveyed report that authorities (for example, FBI or police) requested information about their patrons pursuant to the events of September 11. More worrisome, about one-fifth of the libraries said staff had changed their attitude toward or treatment of users in some way. More than 10 percent (118) reported that they had become more restrictive of Internet use. …