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Curious George
Your library and the Patriot Acts



I have a secret to tell. I once owed $90 in late fees to the Multnomah County Public Library. I wish I could say that this is an anomaly, but my felonious borrowing began early in childhood. Somewhere buried deep in the backyard of my parents' house is the crayon-smeared copy of Curious George goes to School that I borrowed with my first library card. I tore one of the pages and was too embarrassed to return it. Now, however, such secrets may rise out of the dust of my past to haunt me.

As far back as the library of Alexandria, large caches of information about our history and cultures have been tragically destroyed in the scrimmage for political power. The old adage that knowledge is power holds true, but in today's Information Age, the true power lies in knowledge about what knowledge others are seeking. On October 26, 2002 the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, signed into effect a bill that allowed for freer information gathering on immigrants and resident aliens of the US. In and of itself, the Patriot Act I (the 1 has been added in retrospect) gave obscene freedoms to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security to detain individuals without a warrant and without allowing them to contact their family. The justification behind this is that under Material Witness laws, a person could be detained for pending legal cases if they were essential to the case and possibly in danger were it known that they had been subpoenaed. The result, however, is that for the first time in American history secret arrests are supported by law. More immediately, Patriot Act I paves the way for Patriot Act II.

Smuggled in through the smoke of our most recent war, Patriot Act I allocates even greater freedoms to both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Under that Act not only can they access the library records of naturalized and native-born, they can also judge this information anti-American under a far looser definition.

Prior to Patriot Act I, the FBI was still allowed to access library records, but they had to prove extensive probable cause in a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court and obtain a warrant. If Patriot Act II passes, however, FISA warrants would become completely unnecessary, and agents would only have to express "suspicion that someone is engaged in an action that could potentially support terrorism", while "terrorism" already includes as broad a spectrum as donating money to an organization that is later found to have vague ties to the Middle-East (American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Update). This applies to resident aliens and American citizens alike. What is even more frightening is that the draft for Patriot Act II was leaked to the press and John Ashcroft, who drafted the bill, still denies its existence.

The American Library Association (ALA) and the ACLU made attempts to slow the passage of Patriot Act I but "During conference deliberations there was no opportunity to wiggle in some other definition or report language to meet library concerns. This was further complicated by the closure of congressional office buildings because of Anthrax problems. This made it extremely difficult to contact congressional staffers," (USA Patriot Act: A Summary of ALA Activities). The bill was pushed through so quickly that many congressmen did not even get a chance to read it. If Patriot Act II is passed in the same covert way, it will be much, much worse. The ACLU's 20 page summary of the Patriot Act II, located on their website, is far more accessible than the original over 80 page draft which can be found on the Now, with Bill Moyers website. Some of the more startling aspects of the bill:

  • Allows for the sampling and cataloguing of innocent Americans' genetic information without a court order and without consent

  • Terminates court-approved limits on police spying, which were initially put in place to prevent McCarthy-style law enforcement persecution based on religious or political affiliation.

  • Permits searches, wiretaps and surveillance of United States citizens of behalf of foreign governments-including dictatorships and human rights abusers-in the absence of Senate-approved treaties

Patriot Act I put librarians under a gag order, rendering them unable to contact a person and tell them if they are under scrutiny. In fact, librarians are under an unofficial gag order not to talk about the official gag order. As a result, it is impossible to tell how often private information is being gathered or for what specific purposes. If we could, we would have a better sense of what books might set off alarms. I tried unsuccessfully to locate a list of books which could raise red flags to the government, this is largely because librarians say they haven't been given a list of this kind and that they are just as much in the dark about what agents might be looking for. Once they find this information, Patriot Act II would allow the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to use it as an excuse for wiretaps and any suspicious books or materials would make a citizen vulnerable to all of the invasions listed above. Clearly both Patriot Acts not only make personal research into a potentially dangerous secret, they are also creating a society of secrecy.

So what does this mean for me? Well, according to Jennifer Steward, Library Administrator at the Multnomah County Library, the library now destroys general checkout records after a brief period of time. (I am reminded of that "touch of cotton" commercial, where the cute girl strews shredded documents like dirty snow while dancing around her office) While this was a relief to me, I learned that any hold items or overdue books remain on your record for three years. Since almost every library book I ever borrowed was returned late, I started to worry. Scrolling through my mental intranet, I searched for books that might be considered incriminating. I fretted vaguely about someone learning that I'd checked out The Story of O, twice, but then I remembered Still Life With Woodpecker. I had borrowed it early one summer and forgot to return until fall, during which time it was chewed by a dog, left on the top of my car, used as a coaster and dropped in a pool. I know, I am a horrible person. But what really worried me was that Tim Robbins' book is not just irreverent but contains several vivid descriptions of how to make a bomb. I checked. One of them is real. (And no, I won't tell you which one). It's only a pipe bomb but still, a pipe bomb was used at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.

What if the Department of Homeland Security intercepted an email from me to Anvil about the fact that I was doing this research? (My boyfriend loves to remind me that emails are as secret as sending a postcard written in pencil - just ask your mailman) What if they then checked into my library records saw this book, then checked into my charitable donations (made, no doubt, to assuage the guilt of being such a crappy library patron)? What if NOW was found to be sending money to help women in Iraq? I could hear a knock on the door and disappear completely. My family would call all of the hospitals, then all my friends, then the jails, but they wouldn't find me because I would be sitting in jail without an attorney, due process, or even bail. If the Patriot Act II passes I could be stripped of my native-born citizenship and extradited to any country the Department of Homeland Security chose, without regard to that country's history of human rights abuses or the stability of the region, a situation that already confronts naturalized citizens of this country. All of this would be legal under United States law.

Sometimes the idea of Big Brother is enough to do the job of Big Brother himself.

I love libraries. Much as I abuse them, I am in love with the vast realms of escape potentialized by those long rows and high-tiered ceilings. Would I give up my library privileges just to keep the secret covenant between reader and author? I hate the idea of someone peering over my shoulder when I read, but only I know what information I receive from those pages. I will continue to gain knowledge regardless of who is watching, and thus I gain power. I know at least one thing- I will never return my library books late again.

To quote Douglas Lain, a Portland Peaceful Response organizer "if they want to know what people in Portland are reading, I want them to find we're all reading exactly the wrong things," (Portland Mercury, 04.17.2003).

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

— The Bill of Rights, Amendment 14, Section 1