Once called the "library provision," Section 215 of the Patriot Act forced libraries to become headliners in the battle waged to protect American freedoms. Producer Karen Duffin tells the origin story of the clash that began over a decade ago.
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BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. When we left you at the end of our full hour on the Patriot Act last week, the hammer was about to fall on three of the act’s provisions. And fall it did. In a last-minute session on the Hill Sunday night, the Senate couldn’t agree (again) on passing a set of reforms known as the USA Freedom Act… which the House had passed in mid-May. So those three provisions sunsetted as scheduled at midnight, including Section 215. That’s the part of the law the NSA used to justify the collection of metadata from your phone calls.
BROOKE: Two days later, the Senate finally passed the USA Freedom Act, an effort to rein in the metadata program, somewhat, and President Obama signed it into law later that night. Since the revelations of Edward Snowden, Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been best-known as the provision used to sanction NSA mass surveillance. But back in 2002, it was known as…
NEWSCASTER: ...the so-called library provision…
MAN: opponents refer to it as the library provision
MAN: ...Section 215, known as the library records provision …
BOB: Brooke, you know I for many years I commented on advertising for Good Morning America, right?
BOB: But did you know that I had a bit of a dustup with Diane Sawyer back in 2002 about this very thing? It was about my pick that she wasn’t too thrilled about. for TV ad of the year, and I picked it - it was a public service announcement - because I found highly ironic.
BROOKE: I haven’t heard it, so let’s play it.
[CLIP -- AD]
MAN: Excuse me. I can’t seem to find these anywhere.
WOMAN: These books are no longer available.
MAN: I didn't know.
WOMAN: May I have your name, please?
MAN: Why? What did I say?
MEN: We just have a couple of questions.\
CLIP: 2002 GMA
BOB: It's a campaign about if there were no American democracy, what if the world were like this, and it's very chilling, very Twilight Zone. The irony is, in the post 9/11 environment, America is like that. They are watching, taking books out of the library, and they are watching our library behavior. Under Attorney general Ashcroft. Things have changed.
SAWYER: Well. Again, Bob Garfield, with his opinions as always of the ads of the year, and as we say it's an unusual and earnest year. Thanks a lot. Coming up..
BROOKE: Your contract was dropped, pretty shortly after that right?
BOB: Yeah, this turned out to be a pretty expensive opinion. ABC said that they didn't fire me because of that but they did drop my contract, so there you are.
BROOKE: Maybe Diane Sawyer's view was obstructed a little by her, you know, very large flag pin.
BOB: She was really wearing a flag pin?
BROOKE: I don't know, Bob, just read the next intro.
BOB: The American Library Association has opposed the practices of Section 215 for over a decade, and said this week that the passage of the USA Freedom Act was cause for celebration - but that there’s still more work to be done. Karen Duffin reports on how libraries became a headliner in the battle against Section 215 starting all those years ago.
CALDWELL-STONE: It was late October 28, 2001…
DUFFIN: Deborah Caldwell-Stone, a deputy director of the American Library Association, was sitting in her office when her boss walked in with a huge stack of paper.
CALDWELL-STONE: It was like 385 pages long…
DUFFIN: It was the entire text of the Patriot Act, which had just passed. She asked Deborah to read it carefully, and flag anything she thought was wrong with the law.
CALDWELL-STONE: So I sat in that office for a day and a half, going page by page. And 200 pages in, I was starting to read this one portion, Section 215. It talked about the FBI requesting information without probable cause, “any tangible thing,” in secret, under a gag order. ... I just said, this is wrong. This is unconstitutional.
DUFFIN: But this was only six weeks after 9/11. At the time, 67% of Americans said they’d be willing to forfeit civil liberties if it helped keep America safe. Ten years later, only 27% would say the same. So, if the ALA poked holes in the Patriot Act – they risked public backlash. Or worse, political retribution; they’d be biting the Congress that fed them. But this wasn’t the first time librarians had clashed with the FBI.
NEWSCASTER: Up next, testimony on the FBI plan to conduct surveillance at certain libraries across the country… the hearing will come to order.
DUFFIN: That was a 1988 Congressional hearing about what was called the “Library Awareness Program.” Which sounds like a nice local outreach effort. But according to Alison Macrina, founder of the Library Freedom Project, it actually was...
MACRINA: …a secret program to spy on library records, because, I’m not making this up, the FBI believed librarians were secret KGB agents and recruitment centers.
DUFFIN: Outraged librarians got assurances that the FBI would end the program. But, to be sure, they spent years getting laws or resolutions passed in all 50 states, guaranteeing special privacy protections for libraries. But, says the ALA’s Caldwell-Stone, when they read Section 215 in 2001, it felt a little too much like 1988.
CALDWELL-STONE: We decided we had to alert everyone. We put together guidelines for librarians to be prepared to deal with this law.
DUFFIN: The ALA started conducting privacy seminars, and then stepped up the rhetoric, releasing a statement saying the Patriot Act is, quote, “a present danger to the constitutional rights of library users.”
CALDWELL-STONE: We talked about why it was patriotic to oppose the Patriot Act rather than support it, and why it was a core issue for libraries.
DUFFIN: In fact, protecting the privacy of library patrons is a foundational value: like doctors and their “do no harm” oath. Because librarians see libraries as a safe space for curiosity. Especially about topics people might consider dangerous. Or sensitive, like questions about medical issues. They say library patrons in particular need this safe space, as Alison Macrina explains.
MACRINA: Libraries serve members of communities who are under more surveillance, in greater proportion than they represent in the general population.
DUFFIN: Immigrants, low-income populations, people of color, activists.
MACRINA: These are our communities.
DUFFIN: So ...librarians rallied their community.
NEWSCAST: On a recent weekend at the public library, college students checked out the most controversial books they could find… a protest against the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the FBI to more easily examine library records in their hunt for foreign terrorists.
NEWSCAST: Santa Cruz librarian Anne Turner has posted notices telling library users that their privacy cannot be guaranteed because of the new law…
DUFFIN: At this point, the government began to fight back.
NEWSCAST: Today’s speech by Attorney General John Ashcroft was the billed as the first in a cross-country campaign, amidst a growing backlash against the Patriot Act...
DUFFIN: But Ashcroft kept his speaking tour secret. So the ALA put out a call:
If you hear he’s coming to your town, let us know and we’ll organize a demonstration.
DUFFIN: Emily Sheketoff runs ALA’s Washington office.
SHEKETOFF: So in town after town after town, the librarians found out, “Oh he’s coming here on Tuesday. He’s coming next Thursday.” Ashcroft would sweep into town, speak to law enforcement in a closed meeting, and protestors would be out front. So the only people the media had to talk to were us. Ashcroft was getting more and more frustrated. So he takes off after the American Library Association, says we are promoting hysteria.
DUFFIN: They considered this a sexist comment – librarians are predominantly women – but decided to own it. The ALA made buttons that read:
CALDWELL-STONE: I’m a hysterical librarian. Which everyone proudly wore. Deborah [33:11]
DUFFIN: John Ashcroft eventually apologized to the head of the ALA. Meanwhile, librarians rallied enough public support to help pass over 400 local resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act. And, in a reprise of 1988, pushed for legislation. Here’s Vermont’s then Congressman Bernie Sanders in 2003, introducing
SANDERS: The Freedom to Read Protection Act, which would amend section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Joining me today will be Lynn Bradley of the American Library Association…
DUFFIN: Which lost, in a tie – 210-210. So librarians got increasingly creative. One of the biggest things they were worried about were National Security Letters. These are basically super-secret subpoenas. The Patriot Act made it easier for law enforcement to issue these letters. And they now came with a perpetual gag order, which meant that if you got a letter you could never speak of it. Ever.
MACRINA: You can’t say the FBI has requested patron information. But you can say the FBI has not requested information.
DUFFIN: Macrina says libraries started posting warrant canary signs, which say:
MACRINA: The FBI has not been here today. But watch closely for this sign to be removed.
DUFFIN: But mostly, librarians figured the best way to protect their patrons’ privacy was to have nothing to protect. So after a book was returned, the record of its borrower was deleted, and they started shredding paper records daily.
In 2006, when the PATRIOT Act came up for renewal, Deputy Attorney General James Comey assured librarians that they were safe from Section 215.
COMEY: We have never used it in connection with a library. As the attorney general has said.
DUFFIN: Librarians, and Library executives like George Christian in Connecticut, breathed a little easier.
CHRISTIAN: Much to my relief, the Attorney General insisted loudly and often the Patriot Act had not and never would be used against libraries.So we went on to other concerns.
DUFFIN: But then, just four weeks after Comey’s testimony:
CHRISTIAN: They came in, two agents, came through this door, asked for me. There’s a well-dressed young man in a blazer. Behind him was a much larger person wearing a spandex shirt…I was amused, took it as a good cop / bad cop thing.
DUFFIN: Christian is the Executive Director of a consortium called The Library Connection. They provide technology to 30 local libraries.
CHRISTIAN: He showed me the letter right here.
DUFFIN: A National Security Letter, or NSL – something John Ashcroft said had never been never served on a library. But, because of the gag order attached to NSLs... while the DOJ was saying this:
COMEY: We have never used it on a library…
DUFFIN: Christian in Connecticut, who knew that was a lie, couldn’t say a word. After the FBI left, he called his lawyer.
CHRISTIAN: I said, well, the FBI was here and I told them to get lost. Now what do I do? And she said, unfortunately, your only option is to sue the Attorney General of the United States. That was a little bigger than I had envisioned. So I decided I’d call an emergency meeting of our executive committee..
DUFFIN: They told him, immediately:
CHASE: Let’s sue those SOBs.
DUFFIN: The ACLU took the case, and Christian and the three members of his committee… sued the Attorney General. Asking the FBI to show “probable cause,” and to rescind the gag order.
CHRISTIAN: All we wanted to do was raise our hands and say, we’re librarians and we got an NSL; don’t listen to the Attorney General.
DUFFIN: The Connecticut librarians’ names leaked to the press, and they became a media sensation, dubbed “the Connecticut Four.” But they were still bound by the gag order… and were terrified of breaking it. They stopped answering their phones. Couldn’t even tell their families.
CHASE: One afternoon, my son said, a reporter called and wanted to talk to you about the FBI. What’s going on? I told him I couldn’t talk about. For months afterwards, I kept thinking… what does my own son think I have done?
DUFFIN: That’s Peter Chase, one of the Connecticut Four.
Their case was moving faster than expected. But before it could be resolved…
the Department of Justice had a sudden change of heart.
CHASE: Our attorneys got a call from the DOJ, who said we’ve been thinking about your clients, decided they’re not such bad guys; we’re going to take away their gag order.
DUFFIN: Making these four small-town librarians the first people ever allowed to speak publicly about a National Security Letter. But too late to weigh in on the Patriot Act renewal that had passed just weeks earlier. As Christian said at a press conference: It was like being allowed to call the fire department after your house burned down. Still, says the ALA’s Caldwell-Stone, this lawsuit was a vindication of sorts.
CALDWELL-STONE: No we weren’t hysterics; yes you are doing this. We had a vehicle to point to about the impact of this kind of law on libraries.
DUFFIN: But in 2013, after the revelations of Edward Snowden, and a new administration – this one professing a love of transparency – librarians recognize that nothing much has changed. And they’re now anticipating their next big privacy battleground: technology. Like Google and Facebook – technologies people use at the library, but leave trails of data as they go. Or ebooks. If you check out a book on a Kindle, Amazon keeps the types of records libraries delete.
The other challenge to patrons’ privacy? Patrons themselves. We’ve gotten so used to giving our data away – or, rather, exchanging it… for things like Amazon’s “if you liked this, you might also like that” recommendations. Library users are starting to ask for these same kinds of services from libraries. Services that require data collection and storage.
Libraries may be the last institution on earth fighting NOT to get our data – most library systems require you to opt-IN to have your data stored. Which doesn’t seem to matter as much to library users as it does to librarians. Peter Chase, of the Connecticut Four.
CHASE; People tell us all the time… I have not committed any crimes; I don’t care if they listen in. To them I say: do you have curtains at home? I bet sometimes you draw them because you want privacy; sometimes you open for light. You decide, not the government. Peter
DUFFIN: So, librarians spend a lot of their time helping people weigh these tradeoffs. And if people do want privacy, teaching them how to pull those “curtains.” Alison Macrina’s Library Freedom Project does just that. With help from the Knight Foundation, she and an ACLU attorney have created workshops on how to maintain privacy online.
MACRINA: I’m trying to bring these tools to ordinary people. Right now these tools are in the realm of the tech elite.
DUFFIN: Knight is also funding the San Jose Public Library to create a privacy app. The app teaches people about privacy while they play a Mario-like game…
it asks which privacy issues you care about and which ones you don’t care about...
BERMA: And based on your answers, you're given a personalized privacy path… and so the resources you’re given are custom tailored just for you.
DUFFIN: Erin Berma manages the app. Projects like Macrina’s and Berma’s help people make personal privacy choices. Meanwhile, librarians debate how – or if – to hold the privacy line as a profession. Macrina is hoping they do.
MACRINA: In a world where privacy is always the thing that’s dismissed for whatever cool new service, I would love it if libraries are the one stalwart organization that is like no no we’re going to prioritize privacy above all.
DUFFIN: George Christian says this was his main lesson from fighting their National Security Letter.
CHRISTIAN: Our civil liberties are protected by our willingness to insist the Bill of Rights be honored. It’s not automatic. We have to be personally involved.
DUFFIN: And while you are deciding how… or if... you want to be involved, don’t worry, librarians have your back.
MACRINA: Have you even read the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement? It’s got, like, gravitas… like you have to read it in front of a stadium… it’s like, this is why we will always support people’s freedom to read. And the last line is “freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.” (Yells) Librarians, right?! I know!
DUFFIN: For On the Media, I’m Karen Duffin.
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Jesse Brenneman and Sam Dingman. We had more help from Jenna Kagel. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield.