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Reading? Somebody May Be Watching

Librarians and booksellers want to know just how far the FBI has gone in its effort to root out terrorists.

July 29, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even as Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft fielded congressional criticisms last week over the Justice Department's wide-ranging anti-terrorism tactics, some librarians and booksellers have concerns of their own.

They are awaiting a detailed accounting, now being compiled by the Justice Department, that will reveal, among other things, just how many times federal investigators have secretly monitored the bookstore purchases and library checkouts of Americans in their search for terrorists.

That accounting, ordered in June by the House Judiciary Committee, covers a wide range of surveillance issues, but Judith Krug, the outspoken director of the office for intellectual freedom for the American Library Assn., will be paying particular attention to how question No. 12 is answered. That one asks the FBI to enumerate how many times the federal law enforcement agency has used its new powers to secretly search the once-confidential records of public libraries and bookstores.

She, for one, thinks such searches are a waste of time and an infringement on privacy. But the FBI's answer could shed light on whether the nation's readers are being monitored more closely than at any other time in the nation's history.

Looking for Clues

Since Congress passed sweeping anti-terrorist laws in the emotional aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI has had carte blanche to secretly examine the reading habits of almost anyone, looking for clues that might uncover someone involved in terrorism, a book about the World Trade Center, say, or a book on Islamic terrorism. The court that grants the search warrants meets in secret. The warrants themselves need not mention any suspicion of terrorism. Those ordered to turn over information are prohibited from revealing to anyone, including the person being investigated, that the FBI paid a visit.

"This has a terrible chilling effect," said Leigh Estabrook, director of the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois. "I think it's a terrible thing."

The legislation authorizing such investigative activity is contained in the 342-page USA Patriot Act , which was passed by Congress in October. The judiciary committee, as part of its oversight duties, has asked Ashcroft 50 detailed questions, including the one about libraries and bookstores. Other questions address issues such as secret searches and the monitoring of telephone calls and Internet connections.

The fact that Congress is asking the FBI to detail its activity in the reading-habits category has been greeted with relief by a number of civil liberties groups, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

"Part of the problem is that there is no way to monitor the number of orders being issued so there's no way to monitor any abuse," said Chris Finan, the foundation's president. "That's why we're glad to see the letter."

However, it has taken time for word to filter out that such a law is even on the books. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Illinois library research center, more than a third of the 1,020 librarians polled were unaware of the new law. In the same poll, 85 librarians, most of them from large research institutions, said they had been contacted by federal or local law enforcement officials for information about patrons.

Estabrook, the director of the center, said that by responding to the questionnaire, the librarians may have inadvertently violated the law. In that vein, she said, it is possible many more librarians have been contacted by law enforcement, but did not reveal that because of the restrictions of the law. "My suspicion is that librarians have been quite cautious about saying anything," she said.

Krug, of the American Library Assn., said it is already standard policy for most public libraries to dispose of records once a book has been returned. She said it's been that way for a number of years and it is done to protect readers' privacy. She also said she believed combing library records was a waste of time and tax dollars.

"If the FBI is using its manpower in this way, they probably should be horsewhipped," she said.

Lawsuits Over Searches

The searching of bookstore records by law enforcement officials has been the subject of a number of lawsuits over the last several years. The most prominent of them involved Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore, whose owner refused to hand over sales records as part of a police investigation into a small-time drug operation.

The store's owner, Joyce Meskis, took the case all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, where she prevailed in her argument that bookstores do not have to turn over sales records to law enforcement officials. Ironically, she won the Colorado case after the USA Patriot Act was already in effect.

Meskis said she knew about the search provision in the act but had not been affected by it thus far. She said the thing that worried her most was the amount of secrecy given to federal investigators.

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