THOLOS OF ATHENA

Thursday, June 01, 2006

THE CAGING OF DEMOCRACY

Democracy is only as good as an informed citizenry allows. Using stealth, and following an unmistakable pattern of behavior, the Bush administration has undertaken to deprive Americans of their free speech rights. When the administration set up the machinery of the Patriot Act, the law's covert machinery posed a danger to free speech as well as other rights. And America's leaders were determined to abridge those rights, even as they tirelessly assured the public that there was no cause for alarm.

The reassurances of Attorney Generals, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, were only intended to lull the people into a pleasing accommodation in the matter of spying on previously confidential library records. The Patriot Act, to be sure, contained provisions for the issuing of National Security Letters to librarians, which would compel them, under penalty of law, to turn over personal information about library patrons, all records of books checked out, all records of Internet access.

And the most sinister aspect of the law, required the librarians to conform to a code of silence. Compelled by law, they could not speak about the spying--not to anyone--neither to the press, nor to co-workers, nor friends, nor even to family.

After the September 11th attack, when the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress, this provision became more widely known, and there was a beginning of protest and controversy. But througout this debate, a gullible press and public were repeatedly soothed by comments from Attorney General Ashcroft, and the man who replaced him, Alberto Gonzales. Americans were not to trouble themselves about this provision. Again and again, they were told that this provision was in place as a precaution; again and again, they were told that--as things stand now--such a measure had not been used even once.

After the 2004 election, further opportunities for these official lies were urgently pursued. One of the more outrageous opportunities was during the debate, last winter, over the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, when some of its "sunset provisions" were about to run out. Here again, government actions, taken in secret, were making a mockery of that debate. Unknown to those in Congess, the administration had already issued National Security Letters to a group of librarians in Connecticut. Congessmen and Senators were unaware that these particular librarians were issued NSLs and were gagged under provisions of the Patriot Act.

The gagged librarians hoped to alert Congress, before debate over the reauthorization of the law had run its course. And so, taking the risk of even consulting lawyers, they filed a class action suit, as a collectively anonymous, John Doe, in the case of "Doe vs Gonzales". They won in lower courts but were held up in further appeals by a government that was determined to win the battle in Congress, before dropping its lingering appeals case, and releasing the four librarians from the gag orders.

Janet Nocek, George Christian, Barbara Bailey, and Peter Chase are the four heroes in the "Doe vs Gonzales" case. They are American heroes; and perhaps one day, an American president will honor them in a ceremony at the White House. A few days ago, on May 30, they issued statements to the press.

In their own words, here are excerpts from those statements:
--Janet Nocek, Library Director, Portland Library, Portland, Connecticut:

"Imagine the government came to you with an order demanding that you compromise your professional and personal principles. Imagine then being permanently gagged from speaking to your friends, your family or your colleagues about this wrenching experience."

"Under the Patriot Act, the FBI demanded Internet and library records without showing any evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law."

"My involvement in this case has exposed me to an element of fear, with the realization that there are secretive doings by our government that abridge the rights of its citizens."

"There are other recipients of [National Security Letters] who have permanently been denied their constitutional rights and I hope that our testimony on the effects of the gag will eventually bring about change in the law, that would provide for lifting those gags at appointed times."


--George Christian, Executive Director, Library Connections, Inc, Windsor Connecticut:

"The entire Patriot Act was up for renewal last winter, and I very much wanted to focus public attention and the attention of Congress on my concerns."

"Since the Justice Department gave no other reason for its sudden decision to stop opposing my appeal on the gag order, I can only conclude that the intent of the delay was to keep me from speaking to Congress while the renewal of the Patriot Act was being debated. I am embarrassed that my government would stoop to tactics like this to stifle free and open debate."

"The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground."

"Professionally, I found the gag order to be very compromising. My job is to manage a corporation owned and entirely funded by its participating member libraries. To operate successfuly, I need to maintain their confidence and trust. Although I had the full cooperation of the executive of the board of directors, neither I nor the committee members could reveal to the rest of the board or to the membership at large that we had been served with an NSL without risking procecution."


--Barbara Bailey, President, Library Connections, Inc,
Director, Welles-Turner:

"Because of the gag, the government would not even allow us to attend the hearing in our case anonymously, so we watched via closed circuit television in a federal building in another city. To gain entry to the building, we needed to pass through two levels of security and sit in a locked room with a security officer; we were plaintiffs, but we were treated like criminals."

"Due to some sloppy redacting on the government's part, our identity was eventually revealed to those who took the time to plow through the court briefs. Even though our identity was public due to their own mistakes, the government still insisted that we could not speak."

"After this case received national attention, I was asked to accept an award from our professional association on behalf of John Doe. As much as I really wanted to do it, I had to decline because we were still gagged by the government."

"Undoubtedly, this battle--which is not over yet--has been interesting and exciting for a small town librarian. Our case helped raise awareness about the far-reaching powers of the Patriot Act, not just in Connecticut, but throughout the country. We showed our fellow Americans that this was not just some theoretical political debate. The Patriot Act affects real lives, and even an ordinary American like me can end up being targeted by the FBI."


--Peter Chase, Vice President, Library Connections, Inc,
Chairman, Intellectual Freedom Committee for the Connecticut
Library Association:

"When I and my colleagues received FBI National Security Letters demanding access to our patron's records, I knew that this power had"..."already been declared unconstitutional by a district court in New York. The government was telling Congress that it didn't use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one's rights had been violated. I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation. We had to defend our patrons and ourselves, and so, represented by the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit challenging the government's power to demand these records without a court order."

"It was galling to me to see the government's attorney, Kevin O'Conner, travel around the state telling people that the library records were safe, while at the same time he was enforcing a gag order preventing me from telling people that their library records were not safe."

"While all this was going on, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act, and the government assured Congress that no one's right to free speech had ever been violated."

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