WASHINGTON A librarian who fended off an FBI demand for computer records on patrons said yesterday that the government’s secret anti-terrorism investigations strip away personal freedoms.
“Terrorists win when the fear of them induces us to destroy the rights that make us free,” said George Christian, executive director of Library Connection Inc., a consortium of 27 libraries in the Hartford, Conn., area that share an automated library system.
In prepared testimony for a Senate panel, Christian said his experience “should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution” about the strain that the government’s pursuit of would-be terrorists puts on civil liberties.
The government uses the USA Patriot Act and other laws to learn, without proper judicial oversight or any after-the-fact review, what citizens are researching in libraries, Christian said.
A recent report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that found 48 violations of law or rules in the FBI’s use of documents, known as national security letters, during 2003 through 2005. Some congressional critics want to tighten legal safeguards on the letters.
“‘Trust us’ doesn’t cut it when it comes to the government’s power to obtain Americans’ sensitive business records without a court order and without any suspicion that they are tied to terrorism or espionage,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can use the letters to acquire telephone, e-mail, travel and financial records without a judge’s approval. Letter recipients are not allowed to disclose their involvement in a request.
Prosecutors have said secrecy in their demands for records is needed to avoid alerting suspects and jeopardizing investigations.
In July 2005, the FBI issued a national security letter to Christian and three other Connecticut librarians. The letter sought computer subscriber data for a 45-minute period on Feb. 15, 2005, during which a terrorist threat was transmitted. A gag order prevented the librarians from talking about the letter.
The librarians refused to comply with the FBI’s request.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal challenge on the librarians’ behalf, but it did not name them.
A federal judge ruled that the gag order should be lifted, saying it unfairly prevented the librarians from participating in debate over how the Patriot Act should be rewritten. Prosecutors appealed, but in April 2006 they said they would no longer seek to enforce a gag order.
Last year, federal authorities dropped their demand for library patrons’ computer records, saying they had discounted a potential terrorism threat that had led to the request.
The Patriot Act was rewritten last year and includes a way for letter recipients to challenge the gag order.