WINDSOR, CT - In September 2003, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft ridiculed the American Library Association for its "breathless reports and baseless hysteria" about a USA PATRIOT Act provision that allows FBI agents to search library records without a warrant. Until he left office in early 2005, Ashcroft repeatedly denied that the feds were snooping into Americans' reading habits and computer activities.
In July 2005, Peter Chase and George Christian discovered firsthand that Ashcroft was lying. They couldn't tell anyone, though - not friends, co-workers or family members - even as Congress debated the PATROIT Act's reauthorization.
Christian is executive director of the Library Connection, a nonprofit consortium in Windsor, Connecticut. Chase is president of the group's executive committee and director of one of its 27 member libraries. An eight-month gag order prevented them from disclosing that they'd received a "national security letter" from the FBI seeking confidential library computer records.
"We were shocked," Chase recalls. "None of us had ever heard of a national security letter before."
Little wonder. Recipients of national security letters, or NSLs, are under a lifetime gag order, which prevents them from revealing those letters' contents or even disclosing that they've received one. The use of these administrative subpoenas has grown exponentially under the PATRIOT Act. In 2005, the FBI told Congress it had delivered 9245 NSLs. But last week, the Office of the Inspector General revealed that the FBI has drastically underreported its use of NSLs, which is actually closer to 19,000. Other government officials have put the number at over 30,000.
Chase and Christian, along with fellow committee members Barbara Bailey and Janet Nocek, decided to fight the warrantless search. Though the librarians were never told why the FBI wanted their files, a federal prosecutor later disclosed that it was a matter of "domestic surveillance."
The Connecticut librarians have since been released from their gag order. On March 20, they'll speak at the University of Vermont about how they fought the PATRIOT Act - and won. Civil libertarians say their case is a chilling example of the threats to privacy rights in the post-9/11 era.
"My initial twinge in opposing [the FBI] was that I was aiding and abetting a catastrophe," recalls Christian. "But right away, I could glean that they weren't worried that someone was going to cause a catastrophic event tomorrow." The letter, he notes, was dated two months earlier, and the records the FBI wanted were six months old. In Connecticut, as in 47 other states, library records are protected by law.
Vermont's own protections for library records aren't as strong as those in other states, notes Trina Magi, who chairs Vermont's Intellectual Freedom Committee. Though library records are exempt from the open-records law, she says, nothing explicitly prevents librarians from disclosing them. Moreover, last year's PATRIOT Act reauthorization did nothing to alleviate librarians' concerns.
"What people read at libraries is confidential," Chase argues. "People should feel free to come to the library and look up whatever information they need, without thinking that Big Brother is looking over their shoulder."
In August 2005, the Connecticut librarians sued the federal government, with help from the ACLU. Initially, they were collectively known as "John Doe." However, because of sloppy redacting of court records by government attorneys, Christian's and Chase's identities were made public, and reporters soon came calling.
Chase recalls how he came home one day and was greeted by his college-aged son, who anxiously told him that an Associated Press reporter had called to ask about an FBI investigation.
"I said, 'Sam, I'm involved in a case and can't talk about it. It would be best if you just forgot all about this and didn't mention it to anyone,'" Chase says. "Can you imagine telling that to your son? What's he going to think, that I'm a bank robber? It put the whole family under a lot of stress."
Even after the librarians' names were known, the gag order still barred them from discussing their case. Those restrictions reached absurd proportions. When the government asserted that the librarians' presence in federal court in Bridgeport raised a "national security issue," they had to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV from a locked courtroom in Hartford. When an appeal was heard in federal court in Manhattan, the librarians were allowed to attend but were prohibited from entering the courtroom together, sitting together, speaking to each other, or making eye contact with their attorneys.
Tellingly, the librarians were released from the document request and gag order shortly after the PATRIOT Act was reauthorized in March 2006. Once the government dropped its appeal, the librarians lost their legal standing to challenge the statute's constitutionality.
Today, Christian is troubled by how many Americans have apparently complied with NSL requests. "I'm trying to figure out in my mind how 30,000 NSLs can be issued each year," he says, "and in five years only two people have said, 'I don't think so.'"
Peter Chase and George Christian give a lecture titled "Gagged by the Government: Two Librarians Tell How They Resisted the USA PATRIOT Act." Tuesday, March 20, 3:30-5 p.m. Bailey Howe Library, University of Vermont. Free. Info, 656-5723.