Library leader questions Patriot Act
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The president of the American
Library Association has one word for the USA Patriot Act’s
so-called library clause — “Kafkaesque.”
“It’s very reminiscent of the ’50s and the ‘red scare’
where people showed up at libraries trying to find which
political books professors had read, because they were going to
be put on a communist list or something,” said Michael Gorman,
a British-born librarian who heads the U.S. library group.
“Where it doesn’t seem sinister, it seems comic.”
Alluding to writers George Orwell and Franz Kafka, Gorman
said of the Patriot Act, “I’m much too fond of Orwell to call
it Orwellian, but it’s Kafkaesque.”
Where Orwell’s novel “1984″ foresaw a future where the
government spied on everyone and Kafka’s “The Trial” told of
one man’s futile battle against unnamed government charges,
Gorman said the Patriot Act intrudes on privacy but has little
chance of accomplishing its aim of protecting against
Enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act
lets U.S. authorities get approval from a special court to
search personal records of terror suspects from bookstores,
businesses, hospitals and libraries, in a provision known as
the library clause.
‘JUST IN CASE’
Gorman seemed almost amused as he detailed what he saw as
the government’s rationale for this, noting the irony in a
Justice Department statement that it has never used the
provision, but still needs it “just in case.”
“It’s so important that we have to do these things under
cloak of darkness and the populace can’t know about it, and by
the way, we’ve never done it,” Gorman said in an interview with
Reuters last week as the Patriot Act was discussed on Capitol
The U.S. House of Representatives, ignoring protests from
civil liberties groups, voted on Thursday to reauthorize 16
provisions of the act that expire at the end of the year,
including the library clause.
In a move to add civil liberty safeguards, it also passed
an amendment requiring the director of the FBI to personally
approve all requests for library or bookstore records.
Republicans said there had been no documented instances of
civil liberty abuses since the act was originally passed in
2001. But Democrats said the government had requested
individuals’ library records more than 200 times.
The Senate is expected to take up the matter after
lawmakers return from an August recess.
ERODING PRESUMED TRUST
For librarians, this is a particularly onerous law, since
it forbids them from telling library users that such a search
is underway, eroding the presumed trust between librarians and
readers. Any librarian who violated this provision would be
guilty of a felony, Gorman said.
It is particularly difficult to understand, he said,
because librarians typically cooperate with regular subpoenas
for library records, obtained in regular U.S. courts, and make
public that the order has been issued.
Despite the Justice Department’s contention that the
Patriot Act has not been used to seek personal data about
library users, librarians said in a survey that law enforcement
had sought that information at least 268 times since 2001.
So far, no librarian has openly flouted the Patriot Act,
“There’s been no public case,” he said. “There was some
speculation in the beginning that maybe a test case will be
found. … Either it hasn’t happened or they haven’t found a
suitable test case, or they haven’t found a librarian with the
intestinal fortitude to do it.”
Gorman said he would be reluctant to go to jail to defend
the implicit trusted relationship between librarians and
“To be perfectly honest, I’m a 64-year-old academic
librarian,” he said. “I’m not going to go to prison over that
kind of stuff.”