ACLU Seeks Details of Library Records Request

The American Civil Liberties Union asks a judge to allow the release of the name of a Connecticut library from which federal agents sought patron records. The agents invoked a law that forbids the library to reveal the demand for records.

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The American Civil Liberties Union today went to court to challenge an FBI order for records from a Connecticut library. The ACLU says such orders are unconstitutional because they don't give the recipient a way to fight back. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

A library in Connecticut has apparently received an order called a national security letter, or NSL. The order is apparently aimed at someone who used a library Internet terminal. But that's all we know about this case because the law forbids the person who received the order from talking about it. ACLU attorney Anne Beeson says that gag order is violating the First Amendment rights of her client.

Ms. ANNE BEESON (Attorney, ACLU): Our client says that he did not know that the national security letter provision could be used to obtain library records until the organization received one. And he wants to personally help to educate the public and Congress and other librarians about the danger of this provision.

ABRAMSON: While much attention has been focused on the so-called `library provision' of the USA Patriot Act, the ACLU says this case shows that these national security letters are far more dangerous. A federal judge reviews orders under the Patriot Act, but there's no judicial oversight when the FBI issues an NSL. The ACLU says that without a clear way to challenge such orders, the FBI has untrammeled power to root through personal information. But Viet Dinh, a former Justice Department official, says you can't conduct terror investigations in the open.

Mr. VIET DINH (Former Justice Department Official): The tradition in the law has been to keep these confidential, much like the reasons why we keep national security information classified.

ABRAMSON: The Justice Department argued in court today that an end to the gag order would tip off the target of their investigation. The department also says that citizens who go to a library only have a limited right of privacy. Viet Dinh says library records are like financial information or telephone bills or any other record stored with a third party.

Mr. DINH: Once you rendered that information, your expectation of privacy over such information is greatly diminished under Supreme Court law because you've already made it public to the third party.

ABRAMSON: The ACLU won a preliminary challenge to the national security letter last year. A federal judge in New York agreed that Internet users have a right to the anonymity they enjoy online; that ruling is on appeal.

National security letters are supposed to be limited to what's known as `transactional information,' who's been e-mailing whom, not what they said to each other. But the ACLU's Anne Beeson says such distinctions are difficult to preserve online.

Ms. BEESON: The NSL power would allow the government to obtain the identity of an anonymous user of the Internet or the name of a person who had borrowed particular books from a public library.

ABRAMSON: The ACLU has been worried about national security letters ever since the USA Patriot Act expanded this power. When the House passed its Patriot reauthorization earlier this year, the legislation clarified just how people could fight national security letters. But the ACLU says that language doesn't go far enough and wants the power declared unconstitutional. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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