Ashcroft Declassifies Number of Records Sought Under Patriot Act After Calling Critics “Hysterical”

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In a telephone call to the American Library Association, Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to disclose previously classified information on how many requests law enforcement officials have made for records from libraries and businesses under the Patriot Act. He did not indicate how soon information would be released. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript The Justice Department decided yesterday to disclose previously classified information on how many requests law enforcement officials have made for records from libraries and businesses under the Patriot Act.

The news came in a telephone call from Attorney General John Ashcroft to the president of the American Library Association yesterday. Ashcroft did not indicate the specific types of information included in the report to be made public, or how soon it will be released.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act expands the government’s power to obtain records from a wide range of businesses as part of an investigation, without notifying the subjects of the probe. This section of the law in particular has drawn sharp criticism from civil libertarians.

In a confidential memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller obtained by the Washington Post today, Ashcroft writes “The number of times [the provision] has been used to date is zero.” In 2002, a Supreme Court ruled that the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Colorado did not have to disclose any information after police entered the store two years earlier and demanded to search the purchase records of a suspected drug manufacturer.

Ashcroft’s move to declassify the information follows a pair of speeches he delivered this week in which he mocked critics saying: “According to these breathless reports and baseless hysteria, some have convinced the American Library Association that under the bipartisan Patriot Act, the FBI is not fighting terrorism. Instead agents are checking how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel.”

The disclosure however does not address how investigators have used other parts of the sprawling Patriot legislation.

Ashcroft is in the midst of a cross-country speaking tour aimed at shoring up support for the controversial law, which has been the focus of more than 160 protest resolutions across the country.

  • Maurice Freedman, Immediate past president of the American Library Association, member of the ALA Council, the organization’s governing body, and Director of the Westchester New York Library System.


AMY GOODMAN: Music by Prince Allah, here on Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This item from the Common Dreams Newscenter today, the Attorney General John Ashcroft has accused the country’s biggest library association and other critics of fielding what he calls “baseless hysteria” about the government’s ability to pry into the country’s reading habits. In an unusually pointed attack in a speech Ashcroft gave, he condemned the American library association and other justice department critics for believing that the F.B.I. wants to “know how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel”.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by the former head of the American library association, Mitch Freedman, welcome to Democracy Now!

MAURICE FREEDMAN: Thanks. Good to see you again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about this battle that’s going on between your association, the largest library association in the country and the Attorney General of the United States.

MAURICE FREEDMAN: It’s the largest library association in the world, 65,000 members. It’s a funny battle in that after he made all these baseless accusations and set up all those straw men that he knocked down, he called the president of the American Library Association yesterday to say that he was going to release all this information that had been confidential about the number of requests made of libraries and businesses. We’ve been seeking this information since inception of the Patriot Act.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it that he’s going to let you know?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: Well, it’s not exactly clear. The exact quote is something to the effect that he’s going to make public the classified confidential report that the Justice Department created or wrote pertaining to section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. That’s the part that has to do with their ability to use secret courts to get at library records and other business records.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What has been the main thrust of why the association has been so upset about this?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: The thing is there are two fundamental constitutional amendments, first amendment and fourth amendment. Libraries in the United States have been deeply committed to the privacy and confidentiality of library users. We don’t give up information about our patrons, we don’t ask them their names if they want to ask us a reference question. We’ve tried to protect them over the decades since we’ve been in business. The one basis law enforcement officials have had for getting library records is they to go a judge and with the reference to the fourth amendment, they have to show probable cause. There’s no search and seizure without probable cause for making that acquisition. The Patriot Act took away probable cause. The F.B.I. goes to a secret court and says this has relevance to an ongoing terrorist investigation, that’s the criterion. We’ve got to turn over records. What’s more, it’s a felony if I tell you about it. If a library director says we’ve been had request from the U.S. Justice Department for our library citizens’ records, they have to keep quiet about it. They can’t tell anybody. They can’t tell the person whose records are being searched which is a total change from the state laws that provided protections for people.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a program. libraries, librarians, that if you get your book back on time, basically it erases any mention of name or information of the person who took it out?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: Right. When these computer systems were created, we had specifications in those programs that said you have to break the link between the user and books they took out once they’re returned or fines or settled. all the rest of it. We don’t want to keep records about what people read. It’s not our business.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Has any librarian stepped forward to challenge the law?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: No librarians have stepped forward, Juan. Because it’s a felony. People talk about a gag order.

JUAN GONZALEZ: ..challenge the constitutionality of it.

MAURICE FREEDMAN: That’s the point, if they challenge the constitutionality of it, they have to say that they have been had this unconstitutional request made of them. As soon as they open their mouth about that, they have committed a felony. People use the word gag order, but gag order isn’t as strong as felony. which is what is written into the Patriot Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Well the Washington Post is saying today that the “Justice Department which has repeatedly been accused of encroaching on civil liberties in its war on terrorism has never actually used a controversial provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that allows it to seek records from libraries, bookstores or other businesses. According to a confidential memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft said in the memo to F.B.I. Director Meuller that he decided to declassify the previously secret information, because of his concern that the public not be misled about the manner in which the U.S. Department of Justice and F.B.I. in particular have been utilizing the authorities provided in the U.S.A. Patriot Act. 'The number of times the provision has been used to date is zero', Ashcroft said in the memo which was obtained by the Washington Post.” What do you say about that?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: What do I say about it? I have no idea whether it’s fiction or fact. But what I do know is that the library director who has to remain nameless, because if I disclose that information I’ll be creating a felony situation for the library director that told me, he said that he had gotten three requests for information about patron records. So I don’t know how consistent that is with what Mr. Ashcroft said. But the ind of other statements Mr. Ashcroft has made about librarians and what we’re complaining about gives me pause as to the accuracy, validity and truth of these claims.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the library director comply?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: The library director so far as I know negotiated, yes, in a word, yes. So far as I was given to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: I also know of a situation, and again these are very difficult situations, because as you said, if it is known that a person who has been approached by the F.B.I. reveals that information to anyone except to another person who they need to get the information from..

MAURICE FREEDMAN: And they can tell a lawyer also.

AMY GOODMAN: That they could be charged with a felony.


AMY GOODMAN: But in a situation where the authorities came in and downloaded computer files from a public archive.

MAURICE FREEDMAN: Well the public libraries around the country, many of them have taken steps to try and eliminate or destroy information that might be sought later on. They keep records, no library has enough terminals for people who want to use the internet, so there are sign up sheets. But at the end of the day they get rid of sign up sheets. Some don’t even take names, they give a number and they call a number so they don’t even know who is using the terminal. It’s a history of privacy and confidentiality and our professional concerns for library users. The state laws on the books were perfectly adequate for getting information about library users. They had to go to a judge or grand jury, but the test was probable cause stipulated in the fourth amendment. They’re not doing that now with the Patriot Act.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if kids usually think of their local librarians as freedom fighters. But you have new role now, I’ve always said that you could have a new campaign out, an ad campaign that says, get your library book back on time or else, with that program that will delete the name if you get it back on time. Thank you very much for being with us. If there are any words of wisdom to library patrons, you’ve actually put up warnings, that I think have very much angered the Justice Department, at libraries around the country.

MAURICE FREEDMAN: There has been some libraries have put up warnings.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they say?

MAURICE FREEDMAN: They say we may give up your information about you, and we can’t tell you, and the F.B.I. can come in and take information about you any time they feel like it. A last word, I’d like to just put plug in my little pin here, better salaries for library workers. This is just one more thing that librarians are doing to protect their users and part of their complex roles of being a librarian. They should be paid better.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitch Freedman, former head of the Library Association.

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