As librarian Joan Airoldi explained in her article Case Study: A Grand Jury Subpoena in the PATRIOT Act Era: One Library’s Lesson, in the Winter 2006 issue of Library Administration & Management, the FBI came to the Deming [Washington] Library in June 2004 and asked that the library hand over the names of all persons who had checked out the book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, written by Yossef Bodansky. After asking the reason, they were told the FBI had been alerted to a suspicious handwritten note in the the margin of one page. The library’s staff referred the matter to the local district attorney who researched the matter and ultimately declined to hand over the information to the FBI. Among other things, the request infringed upon Constitutionally protected rights. The FBI also could not demonstrate that there was any connection between the information and the subject of grand jury proceedings.
In researching the matter the district attorney found that the handwritten note was in fact a quote from bin Laden, a statement made after the book had been published. The fact that the FBI did not know this made the agency look stupid, and, more than preventing crime, it’s the avoidance of looking stupid that seems to be behind the PATRIOT Act’s provision allowing law enforcement officials to place a gag order on libraries. Had they used the gag order in this case the FBI could have prevented the librarians from referring the request to their district attorney, or from even discussing it. Very few people would know that FBI agents were so stupid they couldn’t recognize a bin Laden quote, and so jumpy they were prepared to waste time and resources questioning library patrons rather than actually investigating or preventing crimes. Let me be blunt: law enforcement officials have no need for library records. In criminal investigations searching through library records is more of a waste of time than it is an effective aid to locating criminals, and, in this specific case, the FBI was not trying to prosecute a crime; they were on a fishing expedition. If the FBI didn’t already look incredibly stupid in this case, they also missed a critical point: the person who wrote in the book didn’t necessarily check it out. Libraries aren’t bookstores. You can go to a library, pull a book from the shelf, read it, and then leave without it. The person who wrote in the book didn’t need to be a resident of Deming, or of the state of Washington, or even of the United States.
As Joan Airoldi explains, “The library did not know the FBI’s reasoning when its agent asked for our records; we simply knew that the reason we were given verbally (the fact of the book with the writing in it) did not persuade us that the danger was so great that it justified violating our patron’s privacy. That’s why we went to court to ask a judge to void the FBI’s subpoena. The law provides for a judge to hear the reasoning of both sides, and then decide whether the danger is serious and imminent enough that it justifies disclosing records that would otherwise be private.”
In spite of the fact that the librarians were right to challenge the subpoena they’ve been accused of treason, and of supporting terrorism. If we believe the idiotic claim that terrorists “hate freedom” (as if terrorists were a unified group with a single philosophy), though, it was the librarians, not the FBI, who were defending freedom. As the library board said in a 2003 resolution protesting the PATRIOT Act, “privacy is essential to free speech, free thought and free association inherent in library use.” Creating fear in people that they will be prosecuted for what they read has a chilling effect on the freedom to think, and without freedom to think all other rights cease to exist.
This may seem like old news, but the status of the law has not changed. On this day, and, in fact, on any day, we should consider this: our rights and freedoms are even more threatened by the actions of irresponsible members of our government as they are by any outside group because people within our government claim, while working hard to keep the specifics secret, to be working on our behalf. Previous administrations have protected the country within the limits set by the Constitution. The only thing that changed on September 11th, 2001, is that a group of greedy, self-serving individuals exploited a tragedy and we, the American people, along with the rest of the world, allowed them to do it. It’s both ironic and troubling that the same people who claim to want to defend the United States and other nations from al Qaida and the Taliban want to establish a theocracy of their own, one very similar to the regime that existed recently in Afghanistan where women and religious minorities are, at best, second-class citizens, if they’re citizens at all. In both motive and action there is very little difference between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. They claim to be on opposite sides of the same issue, but, like all extremes, they are closer than either one will admit. Both want to force the world to serve their interests, both will use any means necessary, and neither will take full responsibility for their actions, preferring instead to let others carry out their orders. The words written in the book were, “If the things I’m doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God.” George Bush drew a similar line in the sand when he said, more grammatically but less eloquently, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”
The PATRIOT Act should never have been passed. Defenders of the PATRIOT Act cry “terrorism!” any time it’s challenged, but in reality they would like to see rights and freedoms protected the Constitution put beyond the reach of the citizens. They would like to see the very principles that define us as a nation abandoned since the Constitutional freedom of speech, freedom to challenge your accusers in a court of law, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment are roadblocks to their pursuit of absolute power. Defenders of the PATRIOT Act are opposed to democracy and freedom. They would like to make even reading the Constitution a crime. After all, you can’t ask that your rights be upheld if you don’t know what your rights are.