Librarian Fights Gag Order on Records Request
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A librarian and an order from the FBI, a combination that's sure to stir controversy. In this case, they are the subjects of a pending federal appeals court decision in Connecticut. The librarian was served with a national security letter, an order to produce records. The letter comes with a permanent gag order. And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the challenge to that gag order has created the latest flashpoint between librarians and law enforcement.
LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:
You get a quick sense of the tense relationship between librarians and the FBI as soon as you log on to a public Internet terminal at the Ferguson Library in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. Alice Knapp, director of public services, reads the opening screen, a big, fat warning that your privacy is very limited.
Ms. ALICE KNAPP (Director of Public Services, Ferguson Library): (Reading) `You should be aware, however, that a library may be required to disclose such information when it is served with a valid subpoena or court order.'
ABRAMSON: Many libraries have taken similar steps since 9/11 out of concern that anti-terror measures might include eavesdropping on Internet traffic. That concern mounted dramatically when Connecticut librarians learned that a colleague was served with a national security letter this summer and decided to fight that order. Alice Knapp is also president of the Connecticut Library Association. She says the degree of secrecy attached to the national security letter really irked her.
Ms. KNAPP: And now we have people who--their transactions and what they're doing online, is being explored. And not only do they not even know about, they may never know about it. And the one person who might be able to talk about it can't talk about it.
ABRAMSON: An appeals court in New York is still considering the challenge brought by John Doe. The battle has put Kevin O'Connor, the local US attorney, on the defensive. O'Connor seems frustrated that so many people don't understand this is how the FBI gathers the information needed to stop terror plots.
Mr. KEVIN O'CONNOR (US Attorney): And they have an obligation, particularly in the era of 9/11 commissions, when if you don't act, you will be second-guessed to act. And sometimes the only way you can get information is through the use of some of these provisions.
ABRAMSON: National security letters have sparked the latest uproar in the four-year-old argument over the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the use of these investigative tools. The issue has renewed interest in civil liberties forums, which have become a fixture on the post-9/11 landscape. This one draws about 60 members of the League of Women Voters to Hartford's ornate state Capitol. Alice Knapp says she's speaking on behalf of her colleague who can't speak for himself.
Ms. KNAPP: His First Amendment right to tell his story was eliminated, because I am telling you what I think it was like for him, what I think it would be like for me, but I don't know for sure. And I won't know because there's a perpetual gag order.
ABRAMSON: The designated hitter for the Justice Department is John Danaher, the local anti-terrorism coordinator. Like other department officials, he focuses on the law. National security letters have been in use for 20 years, he notes, and FBI agents must have a reason for the request. When that approach doesn't sway, he turns to an anecdote about the time he investigated a bomb threat phoned in to a library. The same library refused to give him access to phone records because of privacy concerns.
Mr. JOHN DANAHER (Justice Department Official): I don't understand that attitude. To call the FBI and say, `We've got a bomb threat. Help us,' and when the FBI says, `OK, we need your permission to track down this information,' to say, `Well, I'm not going to give you that permission,' makes no sense to me.
ABRAMSON: But the audience isn't worried about bomb threats; they're concerned about being caught up in a dragnet and having their records examined. Marie Lamberto(ph) works for the Social Security Administration in New Haven.
Ms. MARIE LAMBERTO (Social Security Administration Employee): As I understand the Constitution and the way we live, it's a balance between our responsibilities and our rights. And you are taking away my right to know that if I do such-and-so, you will probably be looking at my records.
ABRAMSON: Like many people, Marie does not want her library records examined without her consent. Danaher stresses that examining records before a crime is committed is nothing new. Police can peruse all kinds of information--financial data, credit card records--without the owner's consent. But that just makes people more nervous, so he asks for a little trust.
Mr. DANAHER: It does have to come down to trust. I mean, the most powerful law enforcement officer out there is the local police officer. He has the power to place you under arrest. The Constitution permits him to do that if he has probable cause to make the arrest.
ABRAMSON: But as the forum breaks up, trust is in short supply. It seems that prosecutors don't like being told how to fight terrorism any better than librarians like being told how to run their libraries. Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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