Saturday, June 10, 2006

But Which Books Are 'Suspicious'? by Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz

But Which Books Are 'Suspicious'?

Finally freed to speak – months after a judge ordered their gag order lifted – a group of four Connecticut librarians are hopping mad about the infringement of their customers’ First Amendment rights, and a government that wouldn’t even let them participate in the debate about it.

U.S. District Judge Janet Hall ruled last year that the gag order must be lifted, saying it unfairly prevented the librarians from participating in the debate over how the Patriot Act should be rewritten. (No one in government seems willing to pronounce the word "repealed.") But it wasn’t until April that prosecutors dropped an appeal of that order.

The librarians, at a March 30 press conference organized by the American Civil Liberties Union which represents them – did little to hide their displeasure at being told by the government to keep quiet about the FBI demanding their patrons’ book-borrowing records.

"I am incensed that the government uses provisions of the Patriot Act to justify unrestrained and secret access to the records of libraries," said George Christian of Windsor, Conn., executive director of the Library Connection, Inc., a consortium of libraries in the central part of the state.

Mr. Christian noted that the gag order was lifted only after Congress voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

"The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the fire department only after a building has burned to the ground," he said.

Peter Chase, the vice president of Library Connection and director of the Plainville Public Library, said as a librarian he has a duty "to speak out about any infringement to the intellectual freedom of library patrons. But until today, my own government prevented me from fulfilling that duty."

The librarians, although now "allowed" to speak, are continuing to fight the FBI’s request for information about their patrons, said Ann Beeson, the ACLU’s associate legal director.

The Patriot Act, passed in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, allows expanded warrantless surveillance of terror suspects, increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado, and secret proceedings in immigration cases. It also removed a requirement that any records sought in a terrorism investigation must be those of someone under suspicion. Now, anyone’s records can be obtained if the FBI considers them relevant to a terrorism or spy investigation.

Prosecutors argue that secrecy about demands for records is necessary to avoid alerting suspects and jeopardizing investigations. They contend the gag order prevented only the release of librarians’ identities, not their ability to speak about the Patriot Act.

Oh, please. Is this just a test to see how much guff we’ll swallow? Are reading habits about to be given evidentiary weight in court?

To say this all has a chilling effect on the freedom of Americans to write and read what we please is like saying the Titanic is overdue.

What is the recommended procedure now, if Americans want to buy or read a book which our own government might consider "suspicious" or "terrorist-related"? Whether the would-be reader is a college kid preparing a report, a journalist on assignment, or a novelist researching his or her next story line, dare we head to the library and borrow books on demolitions, hijackings, power plants and nuclear fission? Is it OK if your name is Thomson or Jones but not if it’s Faisal or Bashir?

Is there any procedure we can use to get these readings "cleared" in advance with the FBI, the HSD, the CIA, the NSA, the DIA and the TSA before we inadvertently cause our local librarian to receive a call from two officious guys in black suits and shiny shoes who insist on seeing all our records – followed up with a nice, crisp "national security letter" informing her that if she even tells us they’ve been snooping around, SHE could be sent to prison?

We are past the point of warning that if we don’t watch out an American police state "might happen." This is precisely what it looks like. They’re taking it around the block for a test drive, and we’re supposed to believe we can trust them – we have nothing to fear so long as we haven’t done anything wrong.

Yes, but which books? Which book or magazines or newspapers are the ones that, if we borrow and read them, will lead the G-men to suspect we’ve "done something wrong"?

They don’t have to tell you. You don’t need to know.

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