George Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, Inc., a nonprofit cooperative of more than two dozen public and academic libraries in Connecticut.
Last summer, his office got an odd call. It wasn’t from a co-op member.
And it wasn’t from a library patron. It was from the FBI.
One of Christian’s staff answered the phone and then brought him the news.
“We got a call from the FBI, they want to send us something called a National Security Letter, and they asked who to address it to, and I told them you,” the staffer informed Christian, he recalls.
“I thought, National Security what? What’s a National Security Letter?
Until that moment, I’d never heard those three words, National Security Letter. I never knew there was such a thing. I had no inkling whatsoever,” Christian says.
These letters are an extraordinarily powerful tool in the hands of the FBI. Basically, they amount to subpoenas the Justice Department issues by itself, without having to go to a judge for approval. When they were first authorized in the 1970s, the FBI was required to have “ ‘specific and articulable’ reasons to believe the records it gathered in secret belonged to a terrorist or spy,” Barton Gellman reported for The Washington Post on November 6, 2005. But thanks to the Patriot Act, the FBI can slap these letters not only on terrorist suspects but on anyone who is “relevant” to a national security investigation, even those “who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies,” Gellman wrote. The Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to use these National Security Letters to obtain “transactional records” from financial institutions. And the 2004 Intelligence Authorization Act expanded the scope of these letters beyond financial institutions to include car dealers, travel agents, real estate agents, pawnbrokers, and others. The FBI is churning these National Security Letters out at the rate of 30,000 a year, Gellman discovered.
Christian says the phone call alerting him that he was about to get such a letter gave him enough time to research the issue and to decide that “this was not something I wanted to cooperate with.”
He said he was torn.
“On the one hand, I think I’m a good citizen,” he says. “Certainly, the average citizen would want to cooperate. Half of me was saying, help your country out. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, wait a minute, these aren’t the rules this country was founded on.”
When two FBI agents showed up at his office and handed him the National Security Letter, he told them why he objected. He says they didn’t demand the information on the spot, “so we politely parted company.”
That specific letter, according to Gellman, sought “all subscriber information, billing information, and access logs of any person” who used a specific computer at a nearby library.
While Christian says he wasn’t scared by the FBI encounter, he avers that it had its moments.
“The first intimidating thing was the fact that this letter made really clear that I could discuss receipt of this letter with no one,” he says. “And the second thing was the good cop, bad cop routine. One FBI agent was professionally dressed, in a coat and tie, and was mild-mannered, and the other one was casually dressed and muscular and didn’t speak much at all.”
Christian contacted an attorney who had worked with his company before, and she directed him to the ACLU, which was glad to take his case and that of the three librarians on his executive board: Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek. (Chase, by the way, is chairman of the intellectual freedom committee of the Connecticut Library Association.)
These four plaintiffs were not allowed even to enter the courtroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when their case was first heard.
“I wanted to be there,” Christian says. “But the government said no, I can’t be there, because everyone will know who got the letter.”
Judge Janet Hall arranged for the four to watch the proceedings by remote from the federal district court in Hartford, about sixty miles away.
Christian and his colleagues were suing on two grounds: to declare the National Security Letter unconstitutional, and to lift the gag order so they could at least publicly acknowledge that they had been hit by such a letter.
Last fall, Judge Hall ruled in their favor on the gag order, in part because news outlets had already identified the group as a result of the government’s own sloppiness in redacting documents, Christian says.
However, Judge Hall stayed her decision upon the government’s request for appeal. Christian said the gag was particularly painful at that time because he wanted to testify before Congress, which was debating renewing the Patriot Act.
But the government dragged the appeal out until after Congress renewed the Patriot Act.
This rankles Christian.
“They were really happy to have us gagged while the debate was going on in Congress,” says Christian. “As soon as that was over, although our circumstances hadn’t changed, suddenly they said there’s no point in continuing the gag anyway. Clearly here they were trying to keep me from going before Congress. That’s like allowing me to call the fire department only after the building has burned to the ground.”
Chase feels the same way. “The government was telling Congress that it didn't use the Patriot Act against libraries and that no one's rights had been violated,” he said in an ACLU press statement. “I felt that I just could not be part of this fraud being foisted on our nation.”
“Our clients were gagged by the government at a time when Congress needed to hear their voices the most,” added Ann Beeson, the ACLU’s associate legal director, in that press release. “This Administration has repeatedly shown that it will hide behind the cloak of national security to silence its critics and cover up embarrassing facts.”
Even today, Christian and his colleagues are not free to discuss the content of the National Security Letter.
“We can now say that our organization was the recipient of a National Security Letter and that the letter requested library records,” says Christian. “But that’s it. We can’t tell you when we got the letter, we can’t tell you who signed it, we can’t tell you what the letter requested us to turn over. I can’t get into anything.”
Christian does not, by any means, believe he has compromised national security by not cooperating with the FBI.
“I have no worry whatsoever,” he says. “ Because if it was really that important the FBI could have gone at any time before a judge and said, ‘Here’s the evidence. We want a warrant.’ They never did that. So I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
Nor does Christian believe he’s doing something exceptionally heroic.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything extraordinary here,” he says. “I just felt I did what anyone would have done in my circumstances. The only time I felt that maybe I’m on the wrong end of the telescope here was when Gellman reported that 30,000 National Security Letters are issued a year, and I and the ISP in New York are the only ones fighting this? I thought that was bizarre.” (The ACLU is representing that Internet Service Provider, as well.)
Christian believes that “the situation is getting out of hand” with those 30,000 National Security Letters. “If you don’t count Sundays, that’s about 100 a day,” he says. “Andthere’s no evidence they’re apprehending 100 potential terrorists a day—or even one a day.”