On the check-out desk at Santa Cruz public library, beside the usual signs asking people to keep quiet and to return their books on time, there is what might be called a sign of the times. 'Warning: although Santa Cruz public library makes every effort to protect your privacy, under the federal USA Patriot Act records of books you obtain from this library may be obtained by federal agents,' it reads. 'Questions about this policy should be directed to Attorney General John Ashcroft.'
In the unlikely event that a library patron in this traditionally liberal Californian town ever got the chance to speak to Ashcroft, they would discover that agencies such as the FBI and CIA now have the powers to obtain the library records of any individual government investigators claim is connected to an investigation into spying or terrorism. Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated.
The law, known as Section 215, is one of a raft of anti-terrorism measures passed by Congress in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks which civil liberties campaigners claim are seriously undermining freedoms enshrined in the constitution.
Like many provisions in the Patriot Act, Section 215 was little noticed when it first came on the statute books, but over the past few months librarians and bookshops have begun a quiet but determined revolt against its powers. 'Obviously we're aware of the federal government's obligation to protect the American people from terrorism, but we are also aware of our obligations to protect the freedom of both the people who use the library and our staff,' said Anne Turner, the director of libraries in Santa Cruz. 'It's a balancing act, but our library board has decided that individual freedoms are the most precious of all - I mean, that's the difference between a country like the United States and a country like Iraq. We have the right to free speech, to information, to privacy.'
Turner said the signs, placed in 10 local libraries, were meant as a warning to customers that their privacy was under threat and as a means of starting a debate. 'In Santa Cruz not everybody is a hippy radical, but I think it would be fair to say that the response has been one of unanimous outrage. Particularly pernicious is the idea that library staff are not allowed to tell those people targeted by the FBI about what is happening. That kind of secrecy is straight out of Nazi Germany.'
So far, she has received no requests from the FBI for information, although a recent study reported that government agents had visited 85 academic libraries seeking information under the new laws.
Section 215 - which also applies to bookshops - is the target of a Bill introduced into Congress last week by the independent congressman Bernie Saunders, who is seeking an amendment requiring government investigators to produce evidence of a crime before being allowed to look at a person's library or book-buying records.
The Department of Justice has declined to comment on how many times it has invoked Section 215, but it defends the general principle behind it.
In a recently published letter to a US senator, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant said Americans who borrowed library books automatically surrendered their right to privacy.
A spokesman said last week that Bryant was simply pointing out that anyone who voluntarily gave information to libraries and bookshops should not be surprised if others learnt about it. The legislation was a threat only to those who might have something to feel guilty about, the spokesman claimed.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003