Patriot Act causes concerns in libraries
SUMMIT COUNTY – Under the guidance of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the records the nation’s libraries keep are becoming an important tool in the fight against terrorism.
The initial Patriot Act, signed into law on Oct. 26, 2001, gave domestic intelligence agencies the right to walk into a library and check reader records and Internet usage, or into a bank and check bank records of a terrorist suspect.
The librarian, or teller, then, would be restrained from speaking about the incident to anyone, other than an attorney.
While legislation has been proposed to counter such actions, and everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Library Association has announced its disapproval, law enforcement is cautiously enjoying unparalleled access to information.
Local librarians are not resting easy.
“Thankfully, it hasn’t affected us yet,” said Joyce Dierauer, director of Summit County Libraries. “I’ve heard about libraries in the East having a lot of problems. People are coming in and requesting information. Our policy has been we don’t give out that information without a subpoena.”
Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Deputy Director Pete Mang said his agents haven’t had to seize library records yet, but Internet records in private and public machines have been searched.
“We haven’t had any issues that dealt with libraries,” Mang said. “We want to be cautious with this issue. The whole area of electronic information and the gathering of information has changed so much. We want to practice it cautiously.”
A national concern
Lynne Bradley, director of the American Library Association’s government relations, said this kind of conflict has a history.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 created a secret court to authorize electronic surveillance, which, with the popularization of the computer, allowed the FBI to monitor systems, like a librarian’s computer.
In response, states such as Colorado set up library records laws, which protect the right to read privately. Still, federal laws have precedent, Bradley added.
“We don’t know how many times it’s been used,” Bradley said. “There’s been a gag order because of FISA. These libraries that are receiving warrants cannot tell anyone except their attorneys. They can’t tell their congressmen, the mayor or the library board, technically. There’s a lot of details in that statement, but on the surface, that’s the rule.”
The CBI would go through the appropriate district attorney in any case that would require seizing private records, Mang said.
Using the information
Summit County police, meanwhile, have enjoyed the information flow. Captain Derek Woodman said he receives the occasional e-mail from federal agencies with lists of suspects and information that’s more comprehensive, because of the Patriot Act.
“The information flow S is unparalleled,” Woodman said. “It’s better than it’s ever been.”
Still, when it comes to investigating local suspects of felonies, some ways of retrieving information have been slowed.
“For private companies, like the ski resorts, we used to be able to call them and say, “Hey, what do you got on this guy,’ and they’d give us every drop of information on an employee,” Woodman said. “Now, it’s a little harder S I think it’s more of the companies protecting their employees.”
Mang, from the CBI, however, said the information flow hasn’t changed in a significant manner.
“It’s probably more of a federal level. It certainly hasn’t impacted us yet,” Mang said, adding, “Certainly, though, I think everyone in the country is keeping a vigilant eye on what’s happening.”
The Monkey Wrench Gang
For Dierauer, there has been one case of a law enforcement agency requesting information about the readers of a certain book. After Two Elks Lodge in Vail was burned to the ground by environmental terrorists in 1998, local vandals in Breckenridge were believed to have been tied into the burning. For some reason, Dierauer said, the police wanted a list of those who had checked out the book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” by Edward Abbey.
The well-known book is a fictional account of four “environmental warriors,” and, Dierauer said, she didn’t know why that information was needed, or if it helped.
“We pulled up a record of book readers, but all we had is who currently had the book, and the names and addresses of people who had stolen the book,” she explained. “If you return the book, you get erased from our records.
“Also,” she continued, “This was a very popular book. I would say two-thirds of the people in this county have read that book.”
Woodman said he wouldn’t know why local authorities would need to look into a library.
“There’s all kinds of stuff in here that could help terrorists,” Dierauer said. “There’s books on travel that could help them get some place. That’s what boggles me. I don’t know why John Ashcroft thinks this will help.”
A survey conducted last year by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois showed the initial Patriot Act did affect a small percentage of libraries, in how they observe consumers.
In total, 33.5 percent of libraries said they began, after Sept. 11, to monitor what patrons are doing by closely watching Internet stations, or by reviewing the cache and history.
Another 8.7 percent said they are more likely to monitor the kinds of materials people are taking home.
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