Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Libraries as Terrorist Sanctuaries

There is a provocative article from Professor Richard L. Cravatts Ph.D. over at TCS Daily entitled "Libraries as Terrorist Sanctuaries."

Here's the set up:

After a credible terror threat to Brandeis University (in neighboring Waltham, Mass.) was traced to a public computer at the Newton Free Library on January 18th, the FBI and local police, eager to prevent a deadly criminal act and hoping to apprehend the perpetrator, rushed to the Newton Free Library to secure the computer on which the threats had been sent, with the possibility of identifying the nature of the threat and the person behind it.


The authorities, with good reason, thought they might have a ticking time bomb situation; something like you see on that TV show "24" or other such programs. Evidently the library's director didn't see it that way.

What they had not anticipated, however, was that their search would be abruptly sidetracked when Kathy Glick-Weil, the library's director, informed them that no one was searching anything without a warrant from a judge -- this, despite the obvious urgency to act in an instance when a perpetrator was fleeing, time was passing, and a potentially catastrophic incident became more imminent by the minute.


It seems to me that librarians might be on better ground when protecting the "privacy" rights of their patrons if they allowed for such emergency situations. Most Americans would allow coercion of a prisoner of war if there was credible evidence that the prisoner knew of an impending terrorist attack. But we get squeamish if extreme coercion is used indiscriminately. Should not librarians allow for a situation in which publically disseminated information via a library computer terminal has the potential to save hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives?

This seems like a very bad place to draw your line in the sand. If I'm in favor of gun-ownership rights (and I most emphatically am), it doesn't serve my cause to insist that FBI attempts to put traceable elements in large caches of explosives (in case some nutbag steals the explosives) are but one step on the road to government confiscation of all firearms. Granted, we all have to decicde where to draw that line, but the refusal to allow the FBI to get the information off this public computer terminal seems myopic and irresponsible, especially in light of this:

These are not merely philosophical debates because the use of libraries by terror suspects has been well documented. Reports were received from Florida directly after September 11 from the Delray Beach Public Library, where reference librarian Kathleen Hensman claimed that Mohald Alshehri, listed as a hijack suspect, had used the library's computers. Similarly, library patrons in the Hollywood, Florida area, where five of the 9/11 suspects had stayed prior to the attacks, identified Mohammed Atta, another of the hijackers, as having used two of the area's libraries.


The TCS article also makes another important distinction:

This credible bomb threat was very different than a case in which the crime has already occurred: there is a substantial difference between searching for evidence and suspects during the commission of a crime when the intention is to prevent the crime, on the one hand, and the more typical search for evidence after a criminal act has been committed, when law enforcement officials are not driven by the necessity of rapid response.


Since this case represents a fairly extreme situation -- a credible threat of an on-going crime -- it should serve as the catalyst for some fruitful discussion among librarians. On the other hand, if we disagree vehemently on this situation, any future agreement on what is a proper or improper search of library records is unlikely.

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