Throwing the Book at Us

FBI Snoops at Libraries

Under the Patriot Act, librarians and booksellers are required to open their records to the FBI so the feds can trace a person's Internet activities and the books he's been reading and buying. Since these investigations are conducted in secret, the librarians and booksellers are bound under a gag order not to divulge one word of what the FBI is after, nor, indeed, even mention that they have received a visit from the FBI. Librarians fear criminal prosecution should they talk, although the law actually does not specify penalties.

As a result, nobody knows exactly what's going on. A recent Freedom of Information request to the Justice Department asking it to divulge the number of FBI library visits has been denied by the government. Still, bits and pieces of information leak out. A survey conducted by the University of Illinois last October, sent to 1,505 directors of 5,094 U.S. public libraries, showed that the FBI was busy making visits.

"In the year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks," the survey said, "federal and local law enforcement officials visited at least 545 libraries (10.7 percent) to ask for these records. Of these, 178 libraries received visits from the FBI itself."

The survey shows that libraries are split on whether to cooperate with the government. It is thought that such visits have declined. Still, in a recent e-mail, a librarian in Bluffton, Ohio, reported that an unidentified woman recently entered the library and asked for the local hazardous materials plan.

Supposing her to be a patron, the librarian got out the folder and handed it to the woman. "When I gave her the binder," the librarian wrote, "she took out the contents and handed me a letter stating the document would no longer be available at public libraries because it contained 'highly critical' information and would be available 'at a controlled location where proper ID of the user can be readily obtained.' " The letter was signed by the director of the local Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Soon thereafter, a woman from the local homeland security office removed the same file from the Lima, Ohio, public library. Local officials there are said to be particularly nervous about terrorism because a tank manufacturing plant and a large oil refinery are nearby. Disseminating hazardous-materials plans is part of an effort by both environmentalists and the government to make information accessible to localities so that they can protect themselves from industrial pollution.

After 9-11, but before the Patriot Act was passed, the FBI came down on several libraries. In one reported incident at Temple University in Philadelphia at the height of the anthrax scare, two FBI agents visited the university's computer center and ordered two student staff members to copy the hard drive of a library employee and give it to them. If anyone asked what they were doing, the FBI agents said, the students were to say they were ridding the computer of a virus. The plan collapsed when the students found that the employee's office door was locked. When the university's chief librarian heard what was going on, she went to the school's lawyers, one of whom asked the FBI about it. The FBI men said they needed the info because the library employee had received an e-mail mentioning the word anthrax. After the call from the school's lawyer, the agents left and did not return.


Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine

 
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