Revolutionary Worker #1148, April 28, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
This article was sent to the RW by a staff member of Revolution Books, Berkeley.
Imagine this: You work in a bookstore or library. One day two men walk up to you, identify themselves as federal government agents and hand you a court order requiring you to immediately hand over all of the records of the bookstore or library showing to whom books were sold or loaned during the previous five years. And they tell you that you are forbidden from talking to anyone about the court order-- to the targets of the government spying, the media, or anyone else.
Sound like something that might take place under a fascist military dictatorship? Couldn't happen here? Think again.
In the aftermath of September 11, the government passed the USA Patriot Act. Section 215 of this law gives the FBI authority to obtain orders from the FISA court (a special secret court authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) requiring individuals or businesses to produce "any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution."
In a February article in the Village Voice , Nat Hentoff pointed out that under the Patriot Act, "The FBI, armed with a warrant or subpoena from the FISA court, can demand from bookstores and libraries the names of books bought or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement in `international terrorism' or `clandestine activities.' Once that information is requested by the FBI, a gag order is automatically imposed, prohibiting the bookstore owners or librarians from disclosing to any other person the fact that they have received an order to produce documents. You can't call a newspaper or a radio or television station or your representatives in Congress. You can call a lawyer, but since you didn't have any advance warning that the judge was issuing the order, your attorney can't have objected to it in court. He or she will be hearing about it for the first time from you."
Hentoff reported that he knew of at least three such court orders that had been served as of February, when his article was written. However, because of the gag orders, Hentoff wasn't able to get the names of the bookstores or libraries involved. He pointed to the broad implications of this law: "If a judge places a gag order on the press in a case before the court, the press can print the fact that it's been silenced and the public will know about it. But now, under this provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, how does one track what's going on? How many bookstores and libraries will have their records seized? Are any of them bookstores or libraries that you frequent? Are these court orders part of the FBI fishing expeditions, like Ashcroft's mass roundups of immigrants?"
There have been previous efforts by the government to spy on records of book purchases or library loans. During the 1980s the FBI--using "national security" as justification--tried to enlist librarians to spy on people's reading habits, especially those alleged to be reading "subversive" materials. The government efforts were met with tremendous outrage and resistance by librarians.
In 1998 special prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the records of a Washington, DC bookstore, seeking information on purchases made by Monica Lewinsky in the investigation related to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Since then, there has been "an alarming increase in the number of bookstore subpoenas and search warrants," according to Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, who has assisted booksellers fighting back against the subpoenas.
The website Salon.com reported that "perhaps the most wide-ranging request for customer information of this kind came in the summer of 2000, when Ohio authorities subpoenaed Amazon.com." In the name of a police investigation, the authorities demanded the records of all the people in a large part of Ohio who had purchased certain audio CDs.
Broad opposition has been building in the bookseller community to this ominous trend. Independent bookstores, chains like Borders and online booksellers such as Amazon.com have all fought subpoenas and defeated them in court. But the costs of such legal fights can be staggering. A recent case evolved out of the government investigation of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli. The FBI subpoenaed a number of bookstores around the country for purchases made by Torricelli and seven other people as far back as 1995, including Arundel Books in Seattle and Los Angeles. Phil Bevis, owner of Arundel bookstore, told Salon.com that, though the Justice Department eventually dropped the requests when it found out that he and other storeowners would fight the subpoenas, it wasn't a total victory. "It's going to take us years to pay off the attorney bills. The whole thing was expensive and time consuming... I've lost a lot respect for my government over this."
The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colorado fought a subpoena for a couple of years. The Denver police sought purchase records from the store after finding two how-to books on making illegal drugs and a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover at the scene of a methamphetamine lab. Joyce Meskis, the owner of Tattered Cover, refused to comply with the subpoena and fought the case to the state Supreme Court, with the support of many other booksellers, authors and publishers. This month, on April 8, the bookstore won an important victory in the Colorado Supreme Court. The court ruled that the state constitution protects the privacy of both bookstore owners and their customers.
In January, over 500 people attended a benefit at San Francisco's A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books to raise money to help the Tattered Cover's fight against the subpoena. The benefit was organized by Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket children's book series, and involved well-known authors such as Dave Eggers, Dorothy Allison and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. Handler told the American Booksellers Association, "Lately people have been saying `I never realized you were a political writer,' but I don't think this issue is merely for Molly Ivins or Noam Chomsky. Perhaps a nice side effect of this event is that readers will think about the importance of a diverse community of writers at a time when many politicians are calling for unwavering unity."
Will the Tattered Cover case be a precedent in the bookstores' fight against the subpoenas? That remains to be seen. But the bookseller, author, publisher and librarian communities have shown an important desire to fight back, and the Tattered Cover case will certainly give that fight some additional momentum.
Many in the bookseller community and others have stepped out to oppose the broader implications of the USA Patriot Act and the general repressive climate being whipped up throughout this country. In an article titled "The New McCarthyism" in the January issue of the Progressive magazine, editor Matthew Rothschild tied the Patriot Act to other elements of the current repressive climate, including an intimidating November 2001 visit by the FBI and Secret Service to an anti-war exhibit at Houston's Art Car Museum; the suspension of a high school student in West Virginia for wearing an anti-racist, anti-sexist T-shirt; the forced resignation of an experienced program officer from the U.S. Institute of Peace for making anti-war remarks to colleagues; firings of columnists from various newspapers across the country for writings deemed anti-war or critical of George Bush; the efforts by a highly connected think tank to get universities to fire academics who commit what they consider unpatriotic acts, such as expressing opposition to U.S. war moves.
Online publishing columnist Pat Holt, former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle,linked the attacks on booksellers up with the increasing wave of government surveillance. Holt lauded a web site created by the NYC Civil Liberties Union to expose the multitude of video surveillance cameras all across the city. She wrote: "Let's again take a lead from those savvy New York activists. We can't stop Big Brother technology, but maybe we can set some conditions. We can identify it, map it, and broadcast it on the Internet. We can organize, galvanize, mobilize... Let's pump up the volume by ourselves; let's investigate the technology and tell the world who and what is being watched, and when, and where, and how."
As the government steps up its repression and spying activities against the people in the wake of September 11, there is growing opposition to these Big Brother moves. We need to appreciate the diverse resistance, encourage it, link up with it and help it to blossom more fully.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)