Published May 07, 2003
PATERSON, N.J. – Librarians across the country are rising up against the USA Patriot Act (search), shredding records and making other attempts to thwart the legal framework in the war on terror.
Librarian Cindy Czesak is in the vanguard of the rebellion at the Paterson Public Library (search) in Paterson, N.J., a densely-populated Middle Eastern community.
"We're quiet rebels," she said.
Czesak, like hundreds of her fellow librarians around the country, says the Patriot Act makes what people read and borrow from libraries fair game in the name of tracking terrorists.
The Patriot Act, enacted in October 2001 in direct response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year, broadly expands the powers of federal law enforcement agencies investigating cases involving foreign intelligence and international terrorism.
The measure requires local governments to disclose personal information -- such as library records -- about certain people who may be connected to a terror investigation. FBI agents can obtain a warrant for library or bookstore records of anyone thought to be involved in a plot. Librarians then aren't allowed to discuss the investigation.
Powers to use wiretaps and label religious and political groups as terrorists also were expanded under the act.
Under one provision of the law, the secret court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (search) can order businesses, including libraries, to hand over records for terrorism investigations.
The FBI came to Czesak after Sept. 11 looking for information on two of the hijackers who reportedly had used library computers. The library complied with the federal subpoenas, but Czesak and some of her colleagues are now leery of the act.
FBI agents also seized two computers from a Delray Beach, Fla., library because they thought some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used public computers there to communicate.
"The Patriot Act definitely scares me because we see it being carried to the nth degree," Czesak said.
Justice Department officials say the librarians are misreading the Patriot Act. They say it strengthens the government's ability to protect citizens from terrorists who live and operate among us.
"I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding caused by disinformation or misinformation that is out there in the American public," said Viet Dinh, assistant attorney general for legal policy.
Dinh insists library records are not open books for investigators.
"The suspicions that the FBI bases its investigation on is derived from credible investigative or intelligence sources," Dinh said.
Some provisions of the act -- including the one covering libraries -- expire at the end of 2005 and will have to be renewed by Congress.
In the meantime, however, some librarians aren't going out of their way to cooperate.
Across the country, citizen councils have been passing resolutions opposing what they consider to be the most infringing aspects of the law on people's civil liberties.
The Alameda County Library Advisory Commission in California recently approved a resolution supporting a bill spearheaded by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., (search) that would protect library users' personal information and library records obtained through new government surveillance laws.
The Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003 (search), introduced in March, would exempt bookstores and libraries from being subject to investigations without proper due process and court procedure.
Warrants currently issued through the FISA court would have to be held to a different standard. Sanders' bill would ensure proper evidence is presented when a warrant is requested as to why the library or bookstore should be searched.
"One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the right of Americans to criticize their government and to read printed materials without fear of government monitoring and intrusion," Sanders said in a statement.
The bill also addresses the gag orders put on librarians and booksellers when served a Patriot Act warrant and calls for increased accountability from the Justice Department on how other sections of the Patriot Act are implemented.
The bill has more than 75 co-sponsors and Sanders will soon push the House Judiciary Committee to tackle the measure.
"What we have seen so far in the few months since we've introduced this bill is really an unprecedented amount of grassroots support," said Sanders spokesman Joel Barkin.
Sanders' office has received numerous editorials from places such as Nashville, Tenn., Los Angeles and Bangor, Maine, in support of the bill.
The bill is backed by groups like the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Library Association.
"The Patriot Act gives federal authorities virtually unchecked authority to search our customers' records and raises concern that government is monitoring what people are reading," said ABFFE President Chris Finan. "The Freedom to Read Protection Act will restore faith in the confidentiality of these records without harming national security."
Some of California's Bay Area libraries have reportedly conducted privacy audits of their computer systems and files. Others keep fewer records now than they did before the law was enacted. Some even reportedly erase the caches on hard drives or regularly shred computer use sign-up sheets.
Libraries in Santa Cruz, Calif., posted signs warning patrons that the FBI may access the records of what books they borrow.
The Paterson Public Library in New Jersey is even getting rid of records like computer sign-up sheets.
"After that it's removed and destroyed … we bought a nice new shredder," Czesak said.
Librarians and other groups are also up-in-arms about what's being called "Patriot Act II."
The companion legislation, dubbed "Son of Patriot," reportedly has been drafted by Attorney General John Ashcroft's office, although no one will confirm that. The Center for Public Integrity obtained a draft of the proposal.
Among other things, the plan says the government would be allowed to obtain credit records and library records without a warrant.
"I think there's a lot of concern from both sides on this issue of the Patriot Act and how far reaching the Patriot Act is and with rumors a Patriot Act II bubbling around, I think people have paid special attention to this issue," Barkin said.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.