By Andrew Miga
Thursday, April 12, 2007
A librarian who fended off an FBI demand for computer records on patrons said Wednesday that 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, a consortium of 27 libraries in the Hartford, Conn., area.
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.
He said 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.
A recent report by the Justice Department's inspector general found 48 violations of law or rules in the FBI's use of national security letters from 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. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights.
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 is needed to avoid alerting suspects.
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 thought to have been 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 behalf of the librarians but did not name them.
A 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, authorities dropped their demand for the records, saying they had discounted the potential threat that led to the request.