This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

September 24, 2003 - the Patriot Act revisited

I don't know what to think.

I've written before about the Patriot Act, passed in haste after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The provisions were disturbing to librarians. Among other things, the Act:

* lowered the legal standard for obtaining a search warrant from "probable cause" to "suspicion;"

* allowed the FBI to get a special search warrant to retrieve records of library use;

* overrode state and local privacy laws;

* prohibited the library from notifying the patron, or the press, or anyone else that an investigation was underway; and

* granted expanded wiretapping authority to federal & state law enforcement agencies that allowed monitoring of public computers.

It's possible that librarians are a little more sensitive to the issue of patron privacy than most folks. But I think that makes us useful. We're like canaries in the mines -- the first to sense that it's going to get a little harder to breathe by and by.

To many librarians, the Patriot Act is a clear threat to the confidentiality of library use. But when I've talked about this to people I respect, they tell me that I'm worrying over nothing. Besides, don't librarians want to catch terrorists?

Well, sure. But I don't think  looking at our patrons' reading lists is the best way to do that.

More troubling yet is the fact that until recently the whole pattern of use of the Patriot Act has been "classified."

Librarians abhor that kind of information vacuum. So back in 2002, one year after 9/11, the Library Research Center of the University of Illinois surveyed 1,505 libraries; 906 responded.

According to that survey, in the year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, federal and local law enforcement officials visited at least 545 libraries to ask for borrowing or computer use records. Of these, 178 libraries received visits from the FBI.

It's important to note that the USA Patriot Act makes it illegal for persons or institutions to disclose that a search warrant has been served. Fifteen libraries acknowledged there were questions they did not answer because, legally, they couldn't. (Not all of those requests related to suspected terrorist activities.)

My conclusion: it seems quite likely that the FBI, under the Patriot Act, was indeed visiting libraries and asking for patron information. Not just once, but many times.

Imagine my surprise to read in the September 18, 2003 Denver Post that Attorney General John Ashcroft that day disclosed, "The number of times (the provision) has been used to date is zero."

Somebody, it would seem, is not telling the truth. Librarians? Or the Attorney General of the United States?

Frankly, both of those are distressing prospects.

I do have my bias. But in this case it isn't political. Many of the provisions of the Patriot Act were in fact formulated if not instituted under Clinton; that's one of the reasons they were able to be rolled out so fast after 9/11.

The "intelligence community" is very much about security and secrecy. And there are times when such practices are indeed vital to public safety.

But the problem is not a new one. Who watches the watchers?

There is evidence that the law enforcement community is using the Patriot Act for purposes far beyond, and very different than,  those originally declared.

According to an Associated Press piece from September 14, 2003, federal prosecutors have brought more than 250 criminal charges under the law, with more than 130 convictions or guilty pleas.

That's about half. What about the other half? And what were they charged with?

We don't know. Classified.

The same piece reported that investigators used a provision of the Patriot Act to recover $4.5 million from a group of telemarketers accused of tricking elderly U.S. citizens into thinking they had won the Canadian lottery.

Using a new state law barring the manufacture of "chemical weapons," a North Carolina county prosecutor recently caught and accused a man of running a methamphetamine lab. If convicted, he could get life in prison for a crime that usually gets about six months.

The same piece quoted Dan Dodson, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "Within six months of passing the Patriot Act," he said, "the Justice Department was conducting seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them beyond terror cases."

It’s possible that both Ashcroft and librarians are telling the truth, that no technical use of the Patriot Act's specific provision relating to libraries has taken place. Maybe all of those "visits" were done under other laws. The problem remains that it's almost impossible to know. And I still think that's wrong.

We need police. We don't need a police state.

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