HILLSDALE, N.Y. -The U.S. Department of Justice released an audit last month that revealed poorly trained FBI agents have abused a provision of the anti-terrorism law, the USA Patriot Act, which permits agents to look secretly at personal and public documents without a court warrant. Libraries have been one target of these so-called "sneak-and-peek" searches, and they have begun to prepare for more such demands.
To head off improper information requests and explain to library personnel how to comply with the law, Mid Hudson Library System Executive Director Josh Cohen made a presentation to local library directors last week entitled Your Staff and the Patriot Act. Among the recommendations that he and other library officials have made are that libraries delete data not needed for the functioning of their institutions as a way of protecting the privacy of library users.
His comments come against the backdrop of the new information about FBI abuses as well as a case several years ago, in which a library system in Connecticut was the subject of a national security letter, an administrative subpoena. That case went to court, and while system personnel could not discuss the matter, the government released documents that alerted the public to the issue.
In its March 9 report, the Justice Department says FBI agents underreported the number of times the agency issued the national security letters (NSLs) to obtain financial and telecommunications records in antiterrorism investigations. Agents also neglected to provide proper justification for their use, and failed to put in place record-keeping procedures to ensure civil liberties were protected.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged parts of the Patriot Act in court twice. One case involved the Connecticut library system and the other a group of librarians. Judges ruled that gag orders that threatened to jail anyone who even acknowledged that a government inquiry had been made were unconstitutional.
Last year Congress amended the Patriot Act to address some problems with the national security letter provision. But the new version of the law raises concerns among some observers that the revisions make the "gag" provision even more restrictive. The ACLU has now gone back to court to challenge the constitutionality of the amended law.
"It is a real balancing act for libraries," said Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator of member information for the Mid-Hudson Library System in Poughkeepsie. "We are trying to uphold two sets of laws, the New York state privacy laws and now this. We tell our librarians to put the patrons first and then follow the letter of the law," she said. State laws forbid libraries to release data about borrowers without a subpoena.
In the information that accompanies instructions on how librarians should respond to various court orders, Mr. Cohen writes: "We collect a significant amount of private information from our patrons. It is important that this private information be safeguarded with as much care, if not more, than the public information. People entrust us with this information for specific purposes and we must not violate their trust. Know what information you keep; destroy the rest."
Hudson Area Association Library Director Greta Boeringer said Monday: "I will comply with the law, and I will require [law enforcement officials] to comply with the law. What concerns me most is that if an NSL is involved, I am unable to inform my board of the information request. This makes me uncomfortable because the board and I work together for the good of the community."
Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Acts, October 25, 2001 as a response to the attacks on September 11.
The law expands the powers of federal law enforcement agencies investigating cases that involve foreign intelligence and international terrorism. Libraries are a target of this law because of the information they collect on the people who use library services.
According to ACLU, since the Patriot Act was authorized, the number of national security letters issued has seen a dramatic increase: "While reports previously indicated a hundred-fold increase to 30,000 NSLs issued annually, the March audit from the Justice Department's own Inspector General puts the actual number at over 143,000 NSLs issued between 2003 and 2005."
Ms. Aldrich Smith says, "We have given our librarians as much information as we can, so that if law enforcement comes in asking for information, they will not be taken by surprise, will know what is expected and the rights of our patrons."
To contact reporter Diana Ladden, e-mail dladden@IndeNews.com.
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