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A librarian's clash with the Patriot Act


Less than two months after 9/11, in the nation's heightened state of anxiety, Congress passed the Patriot Act with little debate. The act is one of the most significant changes ever made to laws involving the federal government's ability to investigate and jail US citizens.

Among the first to voice concern were librarians, and one of them, George Christian, found himself an early target of the government's new power. Christian is the executive director of the Hartford, Connecticut-based Library Connection, Inc, a non-profit organization that manages the records of 27 college libraries. The Library Connection provides the central data-base that controls patron registry, cataloging, circulation, and telecommunications. The records, then, could be a bonanza of information on students and faculty: titles of what is being read, full identity of patrons --- including telephone records --- times books were checked out and returned.

In 2003, invoking the Patriot Act, the FBI asked Christian to turn over the Library Connection's records. He refused, and soon he was served with a National Security Letter demanding the records and was placed under a "perpetual gag order," prohibiting him from discussing the letter with anyone except his attorney.

Since 2001, the FBI has issued 157,000 National Security Letters. People who receive them can be subjected to the most far-reaching and secretive of federal investigations, and Christian's life was nearly brought to a standstill. He also became one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And as renewal of the Patriot Act was being considered, Christian hoped to address Congress to explain the law's chilling effect on civil liberties. The gag order, however, stood in the way.

The Patriot Act, says Christian, is "a vicious thing, because patriotism is being used in a very under-handed way."

Christian was in Rochester on October 16, telling area high-school students about his experience and discussing the US Constitution and the danger of taking freedom for granted.

The following is an edited interview with Christian about his NSL experience:

City: Prior to the adoption of the Patriot Act, did the federal government ever approach you for records and information like this?

Christian: No, never. But we were very concerned, along with many other libraries, when the Patriot Act was passed because many, many portions of the Patriot Act allow the government to poke around in records that are of interest to them, and then impose a total gag order.

Forty-eight of the 50 states, including Connecticut, have legislation that requires librarians to protect the privacy of patron records. And we became very conscious about that, so we started to make plans for what to do if the FBI came to us in one form or another under the auspices of the Patriot Act.

But we abandoned that, because the previous Attorney General, John Ashcroft, in a really demeaning remark, had said that librarians were becoming hysterical. And that the Patriot Act can not, had not been, and would never be used against libraries.

So we heard that and decided we had other priorities. We just abandoned the effort and stopped worrying about it.

After Ashcroft's statement, you stopped your planning, but had you come far enough along to know what your decision was going to be?

We had decided that if any law enforcement officer approached us for patron records, none of the staff was authorized to release the records. They would have to refer the request to me as the executive director. But we had further decided that unless the request came in the form of a search warrant that compelled an immediate response, we would ask for the chance to speak to a lawyer, and ask our lawyer's permission. We wanted to make sure we were complying with the requirement that we safeguard patrons' records.

At the time this was happening, in 2003-2004, there seemed to be quite a bit of public sentiment in favor of the Patriot Act. Opinion polls said some compromise of our civil rights was okay with most people if it would make us safer. The attitude was, if you've got nothing to hide, why should it matter?

I have to say, I take exception with that. The media have certainly acted as if this was an overwhelming response. And I don't believe it's true. I don't know where the perception is that many, many people are in favor of sacrificing their liberty in order to gain security, because I have not found that to be the case. But the media often reported it that way.

There were four of us involved in this case: three members of the library board who were directors and myself. After the gag order was lifted and it went public, one of us received no criticism from the public, and the other three received one or two complaints each. But they were drowned by an overwhelming number of very, very positive responses from people all over the country. We had people from Alaska, California, from the Midwest to right around here, all thanking us for what we did.

In response to the other part of the question, many people say, "Well, I don't have anything in my past; I don't have anything to hide." Well no, you don't have anything to hide. But you don't want your entire life disrupted by this, either. This is a secret investigation. If the FBI has an interest in you, even if they are trying to exonerate you --- which was the argument I heard from one prosecutor --- they are going to go to your boss, to your boss's boss, and they are going ask for all of the information they've got on you. And they will say: By the way, don't ever tell anyone we asked for it. This is a secret.

And they will go to your church, the VFW, your doctor, your neighbors. And all of a sudden, everybody you know, all of the people you thought had confidence in you, are wondering what kind of evil deed you're plotting that would cause the FBI to be investigating you for reasons of national security.

You'll lose your job. Your career could be ruined, and your family may feel threatened. Your relationship to that community is dead, and you'll never know why. You are left with this appalling cloud of suspicion.

They've issued 157,000 National Security Letters since 2001. That means they have investigated all of these individuals, and I don't think they have captured anywhere near 157,000 terrorists. But they have left the majority of those individuals in a very difficult situation.

What happened once it became clear to the federal government that you were not going to cooperate?

Initially, it wasn't bad, because I told the FBI that they would have to call my lawyer, and my lawyer was the American Civil Liberties Union.

[Things quickly became complicated, however, when the ACLU filed its suit.] We were the plaintiffs in this case suing the attorney general of the United States, yet we could not show up in court. We had to sit in a courtroom 60 miles away and watch by closed-circuit TV, because the FBI thought if we showed up in court the world would know who we were.

But because of the ineptitude of the federal government, when the court made public what they wanted to make public, including an affidavit by me and another by our vice president, they [the court] took a magic marker and blacked out all of the information they didn't want made public. Well, they forgot to black out our names, and in a very short time, the press knew who we were. It was all over the New York Times.

Do you think that was intentional?

No, I think they really didn't want a high-profile case involving librarians, and it was just a careless mistake on their part.

So you were sort of outed?

Yes, and it was quickly all over the media. And our lawyers were really, really frightened because in another case they were pursuing [involving a National Security Letter], the FBI was standing outside their offices taking notes on who was going in and out, and taking photographs. Based on the experience they were having with that case, we were concerned that they would look for a way to accuse our lawyers and myself, saying that we had violated the gag order.

And the attorneys were so concerned, so paranoid when our names appeared in the paper, that they went as far as hiring, in their words, the best criminal attorney in New York. We were concerned that we were in danger of being prosecuted by the feds [for violating the gag order], because whenever the press called, we didn't know how to respond. They already had the information, so how were we supposed to respond? They would call at home and at the library. It was endless.

We exist to serve the 27 libraries that depend on our services, but I had to tell my staff: don't answer the phone.

Explain what a gag order meant in your case.

The gag order meant quite simply that I was not allowed to tell anyone ever that I received this request for information from the FBI. And in legal terms, "anyone ever" means a perpetual gag order. It can go on forever.

Every judge we went to said, This isn't even a valid argument. A perpetual gag order on its face is contrary to the First Amendment.

Our lawyers tried to make the case, but as it was being mulled over by the courts, Congress was considering renewing the Patriot Act. We were the only people on record as having received an NSL. We very much wanted to go to Congress and talk to them, but the government said no; we had to be gagged for national security reasons. We made the argument that, Hey, we're in the New York Times. How big a secret is this? They countered with: Nobody in Connecticut reads the Times. And besides, they said, 64 percent of the people who read the paper don't believe what they read.

It was total nonsense. They didn't make any sense.

But as soon as the Patriot Act was renewed, all of sudden the government says: You know, you probably don't have to be gagged after all, because we're not going to pursue this.

At any other period in history, has the government seemed to be so over-reaching in its power?

Oh, yes. Any time we as a society are threatened, we want to strike back without thinking, and civil liberties go overboard.

It happened in the Civil War; the Red Scare after World War I; the internment of Italian, German, and Japanese nationals during World War II; the McCarthy era --- and it continues until the excess is so bad that people stand up and say: Enough. And it swings back the other way.

But I have to admit that the scale that things are happening this time really gives one pause.

What do you hope your high-school audience will walk away with?

Well, I hope they walk away with how important the Constitution is; that what defines us as Americans are civil liberties guaranteed to us in the Constitution. It's really the vitality of this society. We are highly creative, highly independent, and we have an extremely robust society as a result of this document.

But that is only half of the story. These liberties are only guaranteed as long as you are willing to stand up for them. It's only natural that people in power will want to do things that make life easier for them. And civil liberties get in the way. It's every citizen's responsibility to stand up and say no, or we'll lose them.