New York Times - June 20, 2005
Libraries say yes, officials do quiz them about users
By Eric Lichtblau
WASHINGTON, June 19 - Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government's counterterrorism powers.
In some cases, agents used subpoenas or other formal demands to obtain information like lists of users checking out a book on Osama bin Laden. Other requests were informal - and were sometimes turned down by librarians who chafed at the notion of turning over such material, said the American Library Association, which commissioned the study.
The association, which is pushing to scale back the government's powers to gain information from libraries, said its $300,000 study was the first to examine a question that was central to a House vote last week on the USA Patriot Act: how frequently federal, state and local agents are demanding records from libraries.
The Bush administration says that while it is important for law enforcement officials to get information from libraries if needed in terrorism investigations, officials have yet to actually use their power under the Patriot Act to demand records from libraries or bookstores.
The library issue has become the most divisive in the debate on whether Congress should expand or curtail government powers under the Patriot Act, and it was at the center of last week's vote in the House approving a measure to restrict investigators' access to libraries.
The study does not directly answer how or whether the Patriot Act has been used to search libraries. The association said it decided it was constrained from asking direct questions on the law because of secrecy provisions that could make it a crime for a librarian to respond. Federal intelligence law bans those who receive certain types of demands for records from challenging the order or even telling anyone they have received it.
As a result, the study sought to determine the frequency of law enforcement inquiries at all levels without detailing their nature. Even so, organizers said the data suggested that investigators were seeking information from libraries far more frequently than Bush administration officials had acknowledged.
"What this says to us," said Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the library association's Washington office, "is that agents are coming to libraries and they are asking for information at a level that is significant, and the findings are completely contrary to what the Justice Department has been trying to convince the public."….
The study, which surveyed 1,500 public libraries and 4,000 academic libraries, used anonymous responses to address legal concerns. A large majority of those who responded to the survey said they had not been contacted by any law enforcement agencies since October 2001, when the Patriot Act was passed.
But there were 137 formal requests or demands for information in that time, 49 from federal officials and the remainder from state or local investigators. Federal officials have sometimes used local investigators on joint terrorism task forces to conduct library inquiries.
In addition, the survey found that 66 libraries had received informal law enforcement requests without an official legal order, including 24 federal requests. Association officials said the survey results, if extrapolated from the 500 public libraries that responded, would amount to a total of some 600 formal inquires since 2001.
One library reporting that it had received a records demand was the Whatcom County system in a rural area of northwest Washington.
Last June, a library user who took out a book there, "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," noticed a handwritten note in the margin remarking that "Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God," and went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agents, in turn, went to the library seeking names and information on anyone checking out the biography since 2001.
The library's lawyers turned down the request, and agents went back with a subpoena. Joan Airoldi, who runs the library, said in an interview that she was particularly alarmed after a Google search revealed that the handwritten line was an often-cited quotation from Mr. bin Laden that was included in the report issued by the Sept. 11 commission.
The library fought the subpoena, and the F.B.I. withdrew its demand.
"A fishing expedition like this just seems so un-American to me," Ms. Airoldi said. "The question is, how many basic liberties are we willing to give up in the war on terrorism, and who are the real victims?"
The survey also found what library association officials described as a "chilling effect" caused by public concerns about the government's powers. Nearly 40 percent of the libraries responding reported that users had asked about changes in practices related to the Patriot Act, and about 5 percent said they had altered their professional activities over the issues; for instance, by reviewing the types of books they bought.
Representative Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, who sponsored the House measure to curtail the power to demand library records, said he was struck by the 40 percent response. "What this demonstrates is that there is widespread concern among the American people about the government having the power to monitor what they are reading," Mr. Sanders said.
The margin of the vote on Mr. Sanders's measure, which passed 238 to 187, with support from 38 Republicans, surprised even some backers, but Bush administration officials say they are hopeful the decision will be reversed and have threatened a veto of any measure that would limit powers under the Patriot Act…..