In 2005, an original section of the Patriot Act allowed the FBI to compel anyone they presented with a National Security Letter (NSL) to hand over detailed personal information, including library borrowing and internet search records, about any individual being investigated. The law also allowed the FBI to accompany NSLs with gag orders forbidding their recipients from disclosing that they had even received an inquiry under penalty of being fined or jailed.
Presented with an NSL and gag order in 2005, the four executive board members of a Connecticut library consortium called Library Connection refused to cooperate with the FBI and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the letter and order in federal court. They were forced by the gag order to do so anonymously. A year later, as soon as the government withdrew its document demands freeing them from the gag order, the “Connecticut Four” (as the media dubbed them) spoke out publicly and together against the excesses of the Patriot Act.
The Connecticut Four have united for the first time since then to again oppose new efforts to attack our civil liberties. On September 28, they wrote the following letter in the Hartford Courant:
We are the four librarians who fought a government gag order a decade ago when FBI agents demanded library records under the Patriot Act and told us, under penalty of criminal prosecution, that we couldn’t talk about it. We members of what the media called “the Connecticut Four” haven’t reunited in the civil liberties cause. Until now.
Attempts are being made in the US Senate to expand the amount and kinds of information that the government may compel libraries and others to divulge.
This could once again infringe on the civil liberties of library patrons and silence librarians as we were silenced a dozen years ago.
What Happened Then
“It’s a federal criminal offense to discuss this matter with anyone. Do you understand?”
That’s what the FBI agents said to George Christian, then and now the executive director of Library Connection, in 2005 when they handed him a so-called National Security Letter. The letter demanded that the libraries in our network identify patrons who had used library computers online at a specific time one year earlier.
All the patrons who used the computers could be under suspicion, without their knowledge. This intrusion into their freedom to research was completely unwarranted, in all senses of that word, because no judge had determined it was necessary.
Sadly, both the National Security Letter and the gag order that went with it were entirely legal under the then-new Patriot Act, hastily passed by Congress in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But that didn’t mean they were right.
As a result, we—the members of Library Connection’s executive committee at the time—served as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the request. The American Civil Liberties Union defended us. Of course, because none of us wanted to go to jail for violating the gag order, all of our names had to be listed as John Doe or Jane Doe.
A year later, the government withdrew its demand for information as well as its gag order. We could talk about what happened. This was a win for civil liberties.
In the 10 years since then, we have spoken out, individually, against the excesses of the Patriot Act many times, most recently in support of modest but landmark Patriot Act reforms enacted by Congress last year.
But some senators are angling to increase surveillance authority. This past summer, the Senate barely defeated legislation that would have expanded the FBI’s authority to collect information by using National Security Letters that could gag librarians and others without a court order. The legislation was attached as an amendment to a Justice Department spending bill.
The senators could try again any time—including tacking the legislation onto the government funding bill that has to pass this week to avoid a shutdown.
The New Threat
This expanded authority wouldn’t expose the content of patron communications made through library computers. It would, however, force us librarians to give the FBI other potentially revealing “transaction records,” such as top-level internet domains visited by a patron; links clicked on by a patron to access another website; e-mail metadata (such as the time an email was sent, its size, its type of attachment and maybe even its subject line); and the time and length of an internet search session.
This would take the Patriot Act authority in exactly the wrong direction.
This is a position that, ungagged, we’re proud to take together once again—this time with our real names attached.
Updated at 1:53 p.m. to correct link.