It has been a little more than a year and a half since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the attorney general's office has begun disclosing how the new laws have been used to access information in libraries and bookstores around the country.
In a New York Times article last month, Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh said agents have contacted only 50 libraries, mostly when library workers reported suspicious activity. But according to a survey by the Library Research Center conducted last January, 545 (10.7 percent) of the libraries surveyed were visited by law enforcement officials seeking information. Of these visits, 178 were from the FBI.
Prior to the passage of the PATRIOT Act, library records were protected from disclosure by Colorado State Law under Title 24, except when "pursuant to subpoena, upon court order, or where otherwise required by law." Because of new provisions inserted in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the PATRIOT Act, law enforcement no longer needs to demonstrate probable cause by naming a specific person or set of facts in order to gain a court order. Instead, a claim that information is pertinent to a terrorist investigation is sufficient. Also, libraries are now forbidden from disclosing the fact that a warrant has been served. Still, these new laws, as well as the findings by the LRC, have not had a huge impact in Colorado Springs.
Jos Aponte, executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District, says that there has never been a request for records by law enforcement since the PATRIOT Act was passed. In fact, he does not believe that the provisions of the PATRIOT Act are the biggest challenge the library faces.
"In my 26 years of library experience, I have never had a federal authority come in and ask about the use of the facility. The library is involved in the business of education. It's involved in the business of community development. Those are the issues that affect us currently," he said.
"While this has a higher profile on the national level, on the local level we're more concerned that Pikes Peak Library District has not built a building since 1989. The immediate challenges of this library have to do with the limitations with regard to current tax policy enacted by the state. I can chat with you at length about the challenges faced by this library, but at the moment this [the PATRIOT Act] is not one of them."
PPLD tracks a patron's loan record in order to keep track of circulating materials and fine records. According to Mr. Aponte, there is some concern about how to go about protecting library patrons, and a new policy is underway.
"The board has endorsed a policy for the Pikes Peak Library District that was originally crafted by the American Library Association that details what our rights and what our legal liabilities are with regard to three specific types of law enforcement requests," he said. "They are warrants by the courts, subpoenas, and an inquiry from a law enforcement officer or agent without a court order. So, in terms of retention of records, we are putting together some software which will enable us to purge the records, which is the patron's name with the transaction on that patron, after six months. We have to be able to keep track of what materials are coming and going. If we succeed with this software we'll be able to separate the statistics of the business, what branches are circulating what material and for how long, from the identity of the individuals. We don't want to present the notion that we're inhibiting the law enforcement community. That's not our business."
On March 6, 24 state representatives, including Congressman Tom Udall, introduced a bill to Congress amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to exempt bookstores and libraries from producing records of their patrons reading habits. This bill directly challenges provisions of the PATRIOT Act, and has been titled the Freedom to Read Protection Act. The legislation is still pending.
-- Eddie Kovsky
-- The full summary of the National Library Survey can be viewed online at www.lis.uiuc.edu/~leighe/