Librarians previal in Patriot Act challenge

A glimmer of hope. From AP, April 12:

STAMFORD, Conn. — Federal prosecutors said Wednesday they will no longer seek to enforce a gag order on Connecticut librarians who received an FBI demand for records about library patrons under the Patriot Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on behalf of the librarians, said it will identify them once court proceedings are completed in the next few weeks.

U.S. District Judge Janet Hall ruled last year that the gag order should be lifted, saying it unfairly prevented the librarians from participating in a debate over how the Patriot Act should be rewritten.

Prosecutors appealed, but U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor said Wednesday that the appeal no longer made sense.

One librarian has already been identified in news reports, and the Patriot Act has been changed to allow people to appeal requirements that they not disclose their involvement in a request, officials said.

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

The change followed Congress’ reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the ACLU noted.

“Here is yet another example of how the Bush administration uses the guise of national security to play partisan politics,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “The American public should keep this in mind the next time a government official invokes national security in defense of secrecy.”

The Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows expanded 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 be those of someone under suspicion. Now, anyone’s records can be obtained if the FBI considers them relevant to a terrorism or spying investigation.

The FBI can issue national security letters without a judge’s approval in terrorism and espionage cases. They require telephone companies, Internet service providers, banks, credit bureaus and others to produce highly personal records about customers or subscribers.

People who receive the letters are prohibited by law from disclosing to anyone that they did so.

The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported that the FBI issued a national security letter to George Christian, executive director of Library Connection, a Windsor, Conn.-based cooperative of 26 libraries that share an automated library system.

Christian did not return phone calls Wednesday.

See our last post on the Patriot Act and the surveillance state.