The Patriot Act? Scarry indeed
May 3, 2004 9:54 AM   Subscribe

A thorough analysis of the Patriot Act's effects on civil liberties by author Elaine Scarry. "Ashcroft dismissed the idea that the Justice Department could conceivably care about librarians or library records... [however,] a University of Illinois study... found that by February of 2002 (four months after the Patriot Act was passed) 4 percent of all U.S. libraries, and 11 percent of all libraries in communities of more than 50,000 people had already been visited by FBI agents requesting information about their patrons' reading habits." [via Harper's magazine]
posted by digaman (11 comments total)
Seems like I was in a library recently where they had a sign up saying that they were not going to cooperate with federal agents. I think it was Seattle, but I'm not sure. I guess jessamyn will weigh in on this.
posted by bingo at 11:16 AM on May 3, 2004

I heard (about a month ago) Ashcroft say that nobody had been to any library requesting records. Interesting that the Attorney General can lie about stuff like this.
posted by ajpresto at 11:20 AM on May 3, 2004

Why does John Ashcroft hate America and our values?
posted by nofundy at 12:16 PM on May 3, 2004

I've just finished an article on the UK version of this legislation (ATCSA) which was at least in part inspired by the Patriot Act. As such, I thought that this was fascinating - thanks for the link digaman
posted by dmt at 3:26 PM on May 3, 2004

An earlier discussion worth reading. This is a topic to shout about, I'm not calling double, just pointing to more info. It's rather alarming not to find any follow up studies yet.
posted by roboto at 3:36 PM on May 3, 2004

The bibliography on this page provides a deep look.
posted by roboto at 3:40 PM on May 3, 2004

Ooooh. Scarry.
posted by furious-d at 6:43 PM on May 3, 2004

Libraries reporting law enforcement information requests in year preceding 9/11: 15.5% [question 8]

Libraries reporting law enforcement information requests in year following 9/11: 10.7% [question 9]

Unless there's some obscure aspect of the methodology which escapes me, law enforcement requests to libraries in the year following 9/11 -- as reported to this study -- actually declined markedly. As for the Patriot Act, 68% of all requests were from local law enforcement (and indeed, investigating web surfing habits is becoming routine in many investigations); and 81% of requests were a verbal request for voluntary cooperation. Only 17% were court orders. Of the court orders, only 3% invoked clauses of secrecy. Under Question 15a, the answers are so perfectly divided (33.3%; 66.7%) that one is tempted to suspect the true numbers of requests being represented is as few as 1 and 2. [As a caveat, as many as 15 libraries refused to answer the question, possibly signaling that they had indeed vetted FISA court orders; extrapolation suggests this could account for as many as about four dozen total requests which escaped the study.] At any rate, the numbers are fairly low for the requests which could possibly have invoked the clause in question, and far short of the claimed "11 percent in communities over 50,000", certainly in terms of FBI visits, which are only about 1/3 of the number [the 11.2% figure from the 2nd study includes "FBI, police" and is not broken down; for the breakdown see the first study; additionally, the second study only asks about requests "in connection with September 11", rather than FISA court orders]. Even if we posit that the 1-in-10-libraries-visited figure is an increase, not an unreasonable assumption given other sources of data, we still must conclude that the FBI was asking libraries for information at very nearly as high a rate even without the existence of the Patriot Act. In other words, merely citing the number of visits, without the context, suggests an alarming increase, when in fact the FBI seems to do quite a lot of investigating in libraries pursuant to quotidian criminal investigations already, just like their Andy Griffith cohorts.

Now, certainly there should be oversight, at least Congressional as a proxy for the citizenry, and I'm not defending Ashcroft if he's lying [which he may believe it's his job to do, along with pursing his lips], but it doesn't appear that the rash of "Section 215" court orders claimed is fully supported by the cited study. There may well be abuses, but Scarry fudges the numbers in her op-ed. If there's a study which shows an alarming rise in officially secret library-related investigations, when properly compared with a control period before the passage of the Patriot Act, this isn't it.
posted by dhartung at 9:19 PM on May 3, 2004

You know Dan, we don't agree on much but I take my hat off to you. Kudos.

Nevertheless, from a lawyer's point of view this kind of legislation scares me witless - why fight terrorists bent on destroying our way of life and our most cherished values if we're prepared to do it oursleves?
posted by dmt at 3:08 PM on May 4, 2004

Patriot Act Suppresses News Of Challenge to Patriot Act

(No, it's not the Onion, it's the Washington Post.)
posted by homunculus at 3:15 PM on May 4, 2004

In fact, John Ashcroft, when placed on the spot by ALA President Carla Hayden, basically stated that they have not used section 215 of the PATRIOT Act [yet] to do any surveillance of libraries. This of course begs the question of why some librarians seemed to think that agents had come to their library. There are legal non-USAPA reasons the FBI might show up in your library, of course, but there is no associated gag order, meaning that you can tell people they've been there if they're not they're on PATRIOT Act business. This also raises the question that if they haven't used USAPA in libraries and bookstores since 10/01 when it was passed, why do they need it? I'm already annoyed by the web site which in my estimateion is basically a big commercial for the web site, made with taxpayer dollars, and calling objections to the USAPA "myths"
posted by jessamyn at 5:42 PM on May 4, 2004

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