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Washington Library Tested by Patriot Act


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Nearly four years after its birth, the USA Patriot Act still raises painful questions about just what it means to be patriotic. Congress is considering whether to renew parts of the USA Patriot Act that are due to expire soon. At the same time, people across the country are figuring out where they stand on the anti-terror law. As part of our continuing coverage of the Patriot Act, NPR's Larry Abramson has this report on a library system in northwestern Washington state that had its ethics tested when the FBI came to call.


Once upon a time, Joan Airoldi was just the soft-spoken director of the Whatcom County Library around Bellingham, Washington. Now she's an in-demand public speaker, telling students like these at Western Washington University about the event that changed her life.

Ms. JOAN AIROLDI (Library Director): I was just doing my job one day about a year ago--it was June 8th--when I had a phone call that the FBI had stopped in at the Deming Library and wanted to know the names of people who had checked out this book.

ABRAMSON: Airoldi holds up a copy of Yossef Bodansky's "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War On America." A patron called the FBI when he found these words scribbled in the margin.

Ms. AIROLDI: `If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded by God.'

(Soundbite from library)

Unidentified Woman: OK, that'll be back on the 13th.

ABRAMSON: To find the author of that quote, the FBI came here to the Deming Library in the shadow of snowy Mt. Baker. When the library refused to give up the names of patrons, the FBI got a grand jury subpoena demanding the names of everyone who checked out the bin Laden book since November of 2001. Nina Cox is on the library's board of directors. She says she might have been willing to comply with the subpoena if the government had given a good reason for such a broad search.

Ms. NINA COX (Deming Library): The material, as it was presented to us, really just ha--reeked of fishing expedition. There didn't seem to be any real reason why they wanted this information.

ABRAMSON: Her suspicions were backed up when the library's attorney did a Google search and found that the offending phrase was, in fact, a bin Laden quote from a 1998 interview. So the library decided to challenge the order in court. In response, the FBI backed down and dropped the subpoena. Nina Cox says that's the way the system is supposed to work, but if the order had been issued under the Patriot Act, it would have been much more difficult to challenge.

Ms. COX: The government has always had access to those records, but it's had a process where it could go through a judge and people understood what the necessity was and all that. It wasn't just this--you can't defend yourself against this incursion. They're just going to do it. That's scary.

ABRAMSON: At a restaurant on the Bellingham waterfront, Joan Airoldi meets for lunch with the library's attorney, Deborra Garrett. Garrett says the library had clear grounds to fight an effort that would have intimidated all patrons.

Ms. DEBORRA GARRETT (Attorney): You know, the library's told us that you took this book out on these dates. Tell us about yourself. Who are you and why were you reading this book? And I think that's exactly the situation that the First Amendment is aimed at preventing.

ABRAMSON: Library director Joan Airoldi says government subpoenas already put libraries in an awkward position. An order under the Patriot Act makes that worse, she says, because the act comes with a strict gag order. Even now, she asks Deborra Garrett, `Would I be allowed to tell my bosses, the board of directors?'

Ms. AIROLDI: Would I have been allowed to even mention it?

Ms. GARRETT: That's a hard question. I can't say off the top of my head whether I would have told you you could talk with the board about the subpoena.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

ABRAMSON: Back in her office, Joan Airoldi says the library initially agreed with the government request to keep mum about the subpoena, but word got out and then spread quickly.

Ms. AIROLDI: Can I show you the awards that we've gotten, though?


Ms. AIROLDI: The first award they got was the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award from the University of Illinois.

ABRAMSON: The Whatcom County Library has been showered with First Amendment awards, with laudatory e-mails, and with quite a few messages that question Airoldi's patriotism.

Ms. AIROLDI: `It appears you're more concerned about the right of privacy of a potential terrorist than you are the security of the United States of America. I don't know about your community, but in mine, we teach our children to respect our country, law enforcement and the courts. Who do you think you are? You should be ashamed. I hope the residents of your community hold all of you accountable for your misguided efforts.'

ABRAMSON: The FBI won't discuss the Whatcom County Library subpoena, citing grand jury secrecy rules. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says no library has ever received an order under the Patriot Act. He would support language that would clarify the rights of libraries under the law. But he says any special protection for libraries could turn them into safe havens for terrorists. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: In the coming weeks, Larry Abramson will report on other aspects of the Patriot Act. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.