February 17, 2018

Ashcroft Agrees to Release Report on FBI Library Visits

By Norman Oder

Announcement comes after AG criticizes ALA “hysteria” over Patriot Act; ALA’s Hayden counters forcefully

In a speech to the National Restaurant Association (NRA) on September 15, Attorney General John Ashcroft mocked responses regarding the FBI visits to libraries under the USA PATRIOT Act, setting off a stormy reaction that led him to change a policy and reveal more about those visits.

“If you were to listen to some in Washington, you might believe the hysteria behind this claim: ‘Your local library has been surrounded by the FBI.’ They stop patrons and librarians and interrogate everyone like Joe Friday…. According to these breathless reports and baseless hysteria, some have convinced the American Library Association that under the bipartisan Patriot Act, the FBI is not fighting terrorism. Instead, agents are checking how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel.”

American Library Association (ALA) president Carla Hayden responded September 17, “We are deeply concerned that the Attorney General should be so openly contemptuous of those who seek to defend our Constitution. Rather than ask…librarians and Americans nationwide to ‘just trust him,’ Ashcroft could allay concerns by releasing aggregate information about the number of libraries visited using the expanded powers created by the USA PATRIOT Act.”

Going into libraries?

Ashcroft’s comments to the NRA went on as follows: “The law enforcement community has no interest in your reading habits. Tracking reading habits would betray our high regard for the First Amendment. And even if someone in the government wanted to do so, it would represent an impossible workload and a waste of law enforcement resources.”

In answer to that remark, Hayden commented, “While this may be true, librarians have a history with law enforcement dating back to the McCarthy era that gives us pause,” citing the FBI’s Library Awareness Program.

Not an attack?

An Ashcroft spokesman told the New York Times that the speech was not intended as an attack on libraries but instead on groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and politicians who had persuaded librarians to mistrust the government. He apparently did not know that Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the leader of the effort to repeal Section 215 of the Patriot Act, had been galvanized to action by librarians.

Ashcroft described “strict legal requirements” to search library records. What he didn’t say was that those legal requirements have been relaxed, that no one really knows about FBI library visits because of a gag order, and that there is now bipartisan opposition to Section 215, which relaxed those requirements.

On September 18, Hayden and ALA got some good news. In a phone call, Ashcroft told Hayden that the Justice Department would in fact make public its twice-a-year report to Congress on how often it uses its new powers to search business records, including those of libraries. It was unclear how much detail that report will offer.

In a memo to FBI director Robert Mueller, Ashcroft acknowledged that Section 215 has never been used to seek records from libraries and bookstores. Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington Office, said that is “a clear demonstration” that pre – Patriot Act standards should be restored. She noted that Justice Department officials have acknowledged library investigations that proceed under traditional legal authorities and that ALA has received several calls from libraries seeking legal counsel.

ALA also announced that it is raising money to support its educational and legal efforts to protect the privacy of library users. The project is called “Keep Big Brother Out of Your Library.”