Sept. 2, 2005 – In a victory for privacy and civil liberties advocates, the federal judge overseeing a challenge to expanded law enforcement search powers under the Patriot Act ordered a number of court documents unsealed Wednesday.
According to the newly-released court filing, the plaintiff â€“ a librarian referred to in court documents as "John Doe" â€“ contacted the ACLU after being served with a special type of subpoena called a "national security letter" (NSL) which is issued without oversight from a judge. Doe was hoping to explore what legal options the library had to defy or fight a court order to release records on library user activity. That request apparently sparked the current case.
As part of the Patriot Act legislation passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress expanded the FBIâ€™s powers to search and seize reading, Internet usage and other records of individuals not under investigation from libraries, bookstores and similar places. Under the legislation, the FBI can use NSLs to obtain the information from record-keeping institutions.
NSLs carry a strict "gag order" with them, prohibiting the person who receives it from telling anyone about the search â€“ hence the anonymity of the plaintiff.
Officials in the administration of President George W. Bush have repeatedly denied that the Patriot Act has been used to secretly access library records.
In a statement to the court, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero explained that the ACLU needs to court to lift the gag order accompanying the NSL so the group and its client can testify to Congress and to the public that the government is using NSLs to compel information from libraries.
In a statement last week, American Library Association (ALA) former-president Carol Brey-Casiano said: "The Connecticut case illustrates exactly why ALA continues to fight sections of the PATRIOT Act that allow the government to secretly search the records of ordinary citizens without any judicial oversight. Despite the Justice Departmentâ€™s repeated assertions that it has no interest in Americansâ€™ reading records, this case again proves that the government is demanding patron information from Americaâ€™s libraries"
The unknown library is a member of the Connecticut Library Association and the American Library Association, according to the unsealed but heavily censored court papers.
According to a transcript of Wednesdayâ€™s hearing, US District Judge Janet Hall has not yet received the security clearance to hear the details of the unknown charges against the unknown individuals the FBI targeted in the Connecticut library investigation. Hall is expected to rule on the ACLU challenge nonetheless.