By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, June 19 - Law enforcement officials have made at least 200
formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading
material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new
study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the
government's counterterrorism powers.
In some cases, agents used subpoenas or other formal demands to obtain
information like lists of users checking out a book on Osama bin Laden.
Other requests were informal - and were sometimes turned down by
who chafed at the notion of turning over such material, said the American
Library Association, which commissioned the study.
The association, which is pushing to scale back the government's powers to
gain information from libraries, said its $300,000 study was the first to
examine a question that was central to a House vote last week on the USA
Patriot Act: how frequently federal, state and local agents are demanding
records from libraries.
The Bush administration says that while it is important for law
officials to get information from libraries if needed in terrorism
investigations, officials have yet to actually use their power under the
Patriot Act to demand records from libraries or bookstores.
The library issue has become the most divisive in the debate on whether
Congress should expand or curtail government powers under the Patriot Act,
and it was at the center of last week's vote in the House approving a
measure to restrict investigators' access to libraries.
The study does not directly answer how or whether the Patriot Act has been
used to search libraries. The association said it decided it was
constrained from asking direct questions on the law because of secrecy
provisions that could make it a crime for a librarian to respond. Federal
intelligence law bans those who receive certain types of demands for
records from challenging the order or even telling anyone they have
As a result, the study sought to determine the frequency of law
inquiries at all levels without detailing their nature. Even so,
said the data suggested that investigators were seeking information from
libraries far more frequently than Bush administration officials had
"What this says to us," said Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of
library association's Washington office, "is that agents are coming to
libraries and they are asking for information at a level that is
significant, and the findings are completely contrary to what the Justice
Department has been trying to convince the public."
Kevin Madden, a Justice Department spokesman, said that the department had
not yet seen the findings and that he could not comment specifically on
them. But Mr. Madden questioned the relevance of the data to the debate
over the Patriot Act, noting that the types of inquiries found in the
survey could relate to a wide range of law enforcement investigations
unconnected to terrorism or intelligence.
"Any conclusion that federal law enforcement has an extraordinary interest
in libraries is wholly manufactured as a result of misinformation," Mr.
The study, which surveyed 1,500 public libraries and 4,000 academic
libraries, used anonymous responses to address legal concerns. A large
majority of those who responded to the survey said they had not been
contacted by any law enforcement agencies since October 2001, when the
Patriot Act was passed.
But there were 137 formal requests or demands for information in that
49 from federal officials and the remainder from state or local
investigators. Federal officials have sometimes used local investigators
joint terrorism task forces to conduct library inquiries.
In addition, the survey found that 66 libraries had received informal law
enforcement requests without an official legal order, including 24 federal
requests. Association officials said the survey results, if extrapolated
from the 500 public libraries that responded, would amount to a total of
some 600 formal inquires since 2001.
One library reporting that it had received a records demand was the
County system in a rural area of northwest Washington.
Last June, a library user who took out a book there, "Bin Laden: The Man
Who Declared War on America," noticed a handwritten note in the margin
remarking that "Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope
be rewarded by God," and went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Agents, in turn, went to the library seeking names and information on
anyone checking out the biography since 2001.
The library's lawyers turned down the request, and agents went back with a
subpoena. Joan Airoldi, who runs the library, said in an interview that
was particularly alarmed after a Google search revealed that the
handwritten line was an often-cited quotation from Mr. bin Laden that was
included in the report issued by the Sept. 11 commission.
The library fought the subpoena, and the F.B.I. withdrew its demand.
"A fishing expedition like this just seems so un-American to me," Ms.
Airoldi said. "The question is, how many basic liberties are we willing to
give up in the war on terrorism, and who are the real victims?"
The survey also found what library association officials described as a
"chilling effect" caused by public concerns about the government's powers.
Nearly 40 percent of the libraries responding reported that users had
about changes in practices related to the Patriot Act, and about 5 percent
said they had altered their professional activities over the issues; for
instance, by reviewing the types of books they bought.
Representative Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, who sponsored the
House measure to curtail the power to demand library records, said he was
struck by the 40 percent response.
"What this demonstrates is that there is widespread concern among the
American people about the government having the power to monitor what they
are reading," Mr. Sanders said.
The margin of the vote on Mr. Sanders's measure, which passed 238 to 187,
with support from 38 Republicans, surprised even some backers, but Bush
administration officials say they are hopeful the decision will be
and have threatened a veto of any measure that would limit powers under
Carol Brey-Casiano, who runs the library system in El Paso and is
of the library association, said she, too, sensed a public unease.
"We're concerned about protecting people's privacy," she said. "People
say to me, 'I've read about the Patriot Act, and does that mean the
government can come in and ask you what I'm reading?' And my answer to
has to be, 'Yes, they can,' and quite frankly, I can't even tell anyone if
that happened, because there's a gag order."
Investigators have long had the ability to seek out library records in
tracking leads in criminal inquiries. In two of the most noted cases,
investigators in the 1990's used library records to search for the
Unabomber, who wrote detailed and unusual academic treatises in his string
of bombings over almost two decades, and for New York's "Zodiac Killer,"
who had cited the writing of an obscure occult poet.
Government officials say that while they have no interest in using their
expanded powers under the Patriot Act to monitor Americans' reading
they do not believe that libraries should be safe havens for terrorists.
They point to several cases in which Sept. 11 hijackers and other terror
suspects used library computers to send e-mail messages.
Perhaps the fiercest counterattack from the Bush administration on the
issue came in 2003 from John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, who said
in a speech in Washington that groups like the American Library
had bought into "breathless reports and baseless hysteria" about the
government's interest in libraries.
"Do we at the Justice Department really care what you are reading?" Mr.
Ashcroft asked. "No."
Ms. Sheketoff at the library association acknowledged that critics of the
study may accuse the group of having a stake in the outcome of the Patriot
Act debate. "Sure, we have a dog in this fight, but the other side has
mocking us for four years over our 'baseless hysteria,' and saying we have
no reason to be concerned," she said. "Well, these findings say that we do
have reason to be concerned."