Saturday, April 14, 2007

It’s Simply How a Patriot Ought to Act

George Christian, the Connecticut librarian who, along with three colleagues stood up to the FBI and refused to turn over computer records of patrons who used the library computers during a 45 minute window of time appeared before a Senate panel this week.

The librarians clung to the principles of the Constitution and refused to comply.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal challenge on behalf of the librarians but did not name them.

In prepared testimony before a Senate panel Christian said his experience "should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution.” He went on "Terrorists win when the fear of them induces us to destroy the rights that make us free."

Mr. Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, a consortium of 27 libraries in the Hartford, Conn., area. The librarians were served with National Security Letters, specious instruments that allow the FBI to obtain confidential information, usually only obtainable with a warrant bearing the signature of a judge.

The Patriot Act allows the FBI to use the national Security Letters to acquire telephone, e-mail, travel and financial records without a judge's approval. Recipients of National Security Letters are bound by gag orders, prohibited from disclosing their involvement in said requests. Prosecutors initially appealed the judge’s decision, but in April 2006 dropped their objections, stating they would no longer seek to enforce a gag order.

Later in the year, the request for the records was dropped entirely. The FBI stated simply that they had placed too high a priority on the initial threat that led to the issuance of the National Security Letters in the first place.

" 'Trust us' doesn't cut it when it comes to the government's power to obtain Americans' sensitive business records without a court order and without any suspicion that they are tied to terrorism or espionage," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights.

He said the government uses the USA Patriot Act and other laws to learn, without proper judicial oversight or any after-the-fact review, what citizens are researching in libraries.

Feingold, you may recall, was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act when the legislation was being debated in the wake of September 11. When a reporter asked him, incredulously, why he voted against the legislation (How could anyone vote against legislation called the Patriot Act???) his response was succinct and to the point: “I read it.”

The Inspector General for the Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, recently conducted an audit that found 48 violations of law or rules in the application of the National Security Letters between 2003 and 2005. This revelation has led many in congress to call for a tightening of the legal standards and increase safeguards for civil liberties.

Mr. Christian’s testimony was moving and compelling. Lets hope it moved some of our elected officials enough that they will be compelled to repeal that apostasy of a law, that assault on Civil Liberties, that grossly misnamed piece of legislation known as “the Patriot Act.”