Terrorist Librarians - The Patriot Act in Action
Part one of two. David Goodman describes how a group of CT librarians fought the unlimited power of the Patriot Act. Amy Goodman and brother David on book tour.
Tags: David Goodman patriot act civil rights obama rocks
Added: 3 years ago
[David Goodman is standing at a podium and speaking to the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: One of my favorite stories in our book has to do with some of the most fearless and tenacious freedom-fighters that you'll find anywhere in our country. Uh, these are people who you would not wanna meet in a dark alley if you were trying to hijack someone's civil liberties. And of course, I could be speaking about no one else than our nation's librarians.
[laughter from the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: Amy and I travelled to Connecticut to meet four librarians, uh, who have had quite an impact in the actions that they took. And if anyone embodies the notion of people who, uh, were not looking for trouble, have never been in trouble ... it would be these four librarians. Around Hartford, the capitol of Connecticut, are 27 libraries who decided to link together their computer systems to put their heads together. And so when people go to the public library to surf the net and do email, which is a big use that the library offers, a big service libraries offer nowadays. So anyway, their computer systems are all linked together and run by a small cooperative organization called the Library Connection. Well, one day George Christian, the executive director of the Library Connection, has a small professional staff and volunteer librarians who manage this operation. So, one day George Christian is sitting in his office, when there's a knock at the front door. Uh, there's two gentlemen there who wanna see the boss. And these two men identify themselves as special agents from the FBI Hartford office. They have a letter for him, but this is no ordinary letter. It is called a National Security Letter, or NSL. And upon opening it, it's like Superman opening kryptonite, or getting handed a radioactive rock, because the moment you open this letter and read its contents, you are immediately bound to do what it tells you and gagged from speaking to anybody else. And so the agents direct him to read the letter in their presence, it's very short. It informs him that the FBI wants information on every single person who's used the library computer system in all 27 libraries on a particular day that was four months before.
[murmurs from the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: Um, it offers no particular reason, other than that the FBI is seeking this information in a national security case. It informs him that he must comply with this order, he must not tell anyone that the FBI is investigating him, and should he break this gag order he will be subject to five years in prison. And they have him read that line about "You cannot tell anyone," pointing to each word the way a childrens' librarian might point, underline, while reading at story hour. He looks at this, and he looks at these burly agents in front of him, and he says "I believe this is unconstitutional, and I'm not going to give you anything that you're asking for." So the agents look at him in the way that a predator kind of looks at its prey just before tearing it to pieces, that kind of pitying head-shaking way, and they say "Well, you get back to us just as quickly as possible, then." And they leave him with a business card. So, after playing Superman for a few minutes there, George shrinks back in his office, collapses into his chair, and wonders what on earth he is going to do. He doesn't even know if he can call a lawyer, from the way this thing is worded. It says "You cannot tell anybody." And of course, that ambiguity is exactly what the government intends. It's this all-powerful omnisicent sense, "We are watching, we are controlling." So George decides, well, he can't fight this alone. The only people who can take on the full might of the National Security state ... it'll take at least four librarians to do that.
[laughter from the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: And so, he calls the executive committee of the Library Connection, which is three other librarians who volunteer for this job, one of whom told us how he came to be on the executive committee. Peter Chase, the very polite mild-mannered director of the Plainville Public Library in Connecticut, tells us "Y'know, I'm very busy with my library and I got this call from one of my colleagues, they said 'Peter, please won't you be on the Library Connection board for the next year? We're gonna give you a fancy title, we're gonna call you Vice President, it'll be really easy.'" Two weeks later, Peter Chase is in a pitched battle of national implications, gagged from speaking to anyone in his community or in his family, and the fight is on.
[laughter from the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: So, uh, George Christian calls this emergency meeting of the executive board. This has never happened in the history of this organization before. Uh, and these librarians, it's a very cryptic message, "We must meet immediately tomorrow morning, I can't tell you what it's about, it's an emergency." So Peter Chase is driving there and thinking, "What could this be? Overdue books? An adult book that was filed mistakenly in the childrens' section?"
[laughter from the audience]
DAVID GOODMAN: I mean, he's rifling through everything a librarian would normally worry about. Um, they arrive at this meeting, and George Christian pulls out this letter. And once again, by opening it, everybody in the room is exposed and they're all bound to it and gagged. Their little nonprofit lawyer, who does pro bono work for the librarians, gets up and basically flees the meeting, realizing she is in way way over her head, and recommends that they call the ACLU. So they do, and the ACLU national office decides to handle the case, because as it turns out, our nation's mild-mannered librarians have actually been itching for a fight to take on the PATRIOT Act. They knew they were gonna take it up somewhere, they just didn't know exactly where. Uh, and certainly these librarians in Connecticut didn't know ...
Standing Up to the Madness
April 29th, 2009
"Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times", by Amy Goodman and David Goodman, is a must-read for every librarian, since it details the now famous story of "four Connecticut librarians who refused to spy on their patrons, challenged the USA PATRIOT Act, and won."
Old news? Perhaps, since it happened in 2006, but if you want to get a mega-shot of pride in our profession, take a look at this recent video of David Goodman describing the story.
Chapter 3, "Librarians Unbound"
Few Americans understand how draconian the PATRIOT Act is unless it reaches out and touches them. When the four Connecticut librarians received a national security letter, they were shocked to learn that it stripped away civil rights that they thought were inviolable.
"Where is the court order?" Chase asked George Christian.
"There is none," replied Christian. "They said they didn't need one because they had an NSL." The librarians were being ordered to turn over records on their patrons simply because an FBI agent told them to.
"All of us, as law-abiding citizens, understand that when there's a subpoena, and there's judicial oversight of the process in the course of an investigation, library records may be subpoenaed," said Alice Knapp, president of the Connecticut Library Association and director of public services at the Ferguson Library in Stamford. "But what is of the utmost concern to people is the lack of oversight [in the PATRIOT Act]. And that it can be used for a fishing expedition."
Chase explained, "For us, this is a very important principle. A court order protects you because you have a neutral third party - the court - and you must convince them that a crime has been committed. People come to us and say very confidential things to our reference librarians - they have medical issues, personal matters. What people are borrowing at a public library is nobody's business."
For librarians, safeguarding the privacy of their patrons is a sacred trust. Chase recounted how local police once came into the Plainville Public Library alleging that a driver in a nearby hit-and-run car accident had just come from the library. The police demanded to know who had borrowed books that afternoon so that they could identify potential suspects. "I told them to get a warrant," said Chase, whose politeness belies his steely determination. "They were not happy with me, but that's okay."
As for the cops? "They didn't get the information."
The Library Connection attorney said that the only way to avoid arrest was to either give the FBI the information it wanted, or sue the attorney general of the United States. The librarians quickly realized that they had been snared in a cynical trap. "We were well aware that Ashcroft actually said we were being 'hysterical' because [the government] was not using the PATRIOT Act against libraries," Chase told us. "So what are we supposed to do - actively participate in this deception? It was not bad enough we had to watch this. Now we had to join in."
For Connecticut's mild-mannered librarians, there was no hesitation about how they would respond to this attack on the privacy of their patrons: They would fight like hell.
George Christian, Peter Chase, Barbara Bailey and Janet Nocek were four Connecticut librarians who were ordered not to discuss an FBI demand for patrons' records. They resent the fact that they were forbidden to speak while Congress was debating the issue as part of the renewal of the USA Patriot Act.
The gag order on the librarians was issued under what's known as a National Security Letter -- an administrative subpoena for records that the FBI can issue without prior court approval.
Librarians challenged the gag order with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. But before the lawsuit was fully litigated, prosecutors dropped their appeal, leading a judge to rescind the gag order on the librarians. Nonetheless, analysts say the gag-order option remains available for the government in future cases.