Snoops at the Library


Attention, Mr. FBI Snoop. Here’s a short list of the authors I have checked out of the public library recently: Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, William Blum, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, and John Pilger. Now you don’t have to go and bother my librarian. She has better things to do than answer your intrusive questions.

This evening I read an article by Bill Olds of the Hartford Courant. “I have uncovered information that persuades me that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has bugged the computers at the Hartford Public Library,” writes Olds. “And it’s probable that other libraries around the state have also been bugged. It’s an effort by the FBI to obtain leads that it believes may lead them to terrorists.”

No doubt the FBI has the capacity to bug the computers at the Hartford Public Library. On the other hand, I don’t believe FBI seriously thinks it will apprehend terrorists at the library — that is unless they consider average citizens who happen to read what the government may consider “subversive” literature as terrorists. How many al-Qaeda terrorists do you think are using the computers at the Hartford Public Library? How many of them are checking out books? Are there dirty bomb how-to books are available at the library? Or cookbooks on how best to mix up a batch of anthrax at home in the kitchen sink?

It’s just not books. It’s email, too. A lot of people use the public library to cruise the internet. You never know… the guy on the computer next to you at the library may be an al-Qaeda operative communicating with somebody in Pakistan. He may be planning the death and destruction of infidels in an AOL chatroom. Osama bin Laden might be on the other end of the wire.

Back in October of last year the FBI checked computer terminals in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs, Florida. According to the government, 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were in Florida at one time or another. Since snooping at public libraries is secret under the Patriot Act, we will probably never know if they found anything. Even so, I bet the FBI knows they’re not likely to catch terrorists at the public library — or will they scrape up enough evidence to thwart an attack. It’s not al-Qaeda specifically the FBI is interested in snooping on.

The FBI wants to keep tabs on Americans who may read the wrong books and harbor the wrong ideas about their government. Snooping is all about domestic politics.

Do you think I’m paranoid? Read on.

Back in the 1970s — before Democrats went completely spineless — there were committees convened to investigate numerous abuses committed not only by the FBI, but also the CIA and the NSA. “On the theory that the executive’s responsibility in the area of ‘national security’ and ‘foreign intelligence’ justified [the use of informants, infiltration, wire taps, warrantless surreptitious entries, mail opening programs, even blackmail and violence] without the need of judicial supervision, the intelligence community believed it was free to direct these techniques against individuals and organizations whom it believed threatened the country’s security,” concluded the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, 1976 — otherwise known as the Church Committee.

The Church Committee discovered much of the information was “collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action.” In other words, they FBI served as a secret police — not unlike the Stasi or KGB — and went after political opponents. “White House officials have requested and obtained politically useful information from the FBI, including information on the activities of political opponents or critics… the FBI engaged in activities which necessarily affected the processes by which American citizens make decisions. In doing so, it distorted and exaggerated facts, made use of the mass media, and attacked the leadership of groups which it considered threats to the social order.”

“Regardless of the unattractiveness or noisy militancy of some private citizens or organizations,” wrote Congressman Don Edwards in 1975,

the Constitution does not permit federal interference with their activities except through the criminal justice system, armed with its ancient safeguards. There are no exceptions. No federal agency, the CIA, the IRS, or the FBI, can be at the same time policeman, prosecutor, judge and jury. That is what constitutionally guaranteed due process is all about. It may sometimes be disorderly and unsatisfactory to some, but it is the essence of freedom … I suggest that the philosophy supporting COINTELPRO is the subversive notion that any public official, the President or a policeman, possesses a kind of inherent power to set aside the Constitution whenever he thinks the public interest, or “national security” warrants it. That notion is postulate of tyranny.

That was then, this is now.

Consider the 1996 Antiterrorism Act, which James X. Dempsey and David Cole (authors of “Terrorism & the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security”) trace back to the “intolerant approaches of the 1950s,” when association with Communist or anarchist groups was grounds for exclusion and deportation. It was this intolerance and distrust of political opposition that led to the sort of criminal behavior the FBI and other police and intelligence agencies wantonly engaged in — COINTELPRO, Operation Chaos, the Huston Plan, state police Red Squads.

The Church Committee, however, was nothing more than a glitch. It only slowed down the government’s desire to snoop on and disrupt the legal political activities of American citizens for a short period of time. Soon, the “postulate of tyranny” was back with a vengence.

Both the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations proposed draconian provisions that would eventually end up in the Patriot Act. Congress rejected the Reagan and Bush proposals — including guilt by association, association as grounds for exclusion or deportation, a ban on supporting lawful activities of groups labeled terrorist, the use of secret evidence, and the empowerment of the Secretary of State to designate groups as terrorist organizations, without judicial or congressional review. According to Dempsey and Cole, “several members of the House Judiciary Committee, both Democrat and Republican, questioned the need for the legislation… The legislation languished and seemed headed for defeat.”

The courts were not going along with the idea of a police state, either. In 1980, the 4th Circuit court stated in the landmark case of US v. Truong Dinh Hung that “the executive should be excused from securing a warrant only when the surveillance is conducted ‘primarily’ for foreign intelligence reasons.” The rules on this sort of snooping were established under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law designed to allow intelligence agencies to gather information on foreign powers without the restrictions imposed on them by the Constitution. Under FISA, when agents wanted to obtain authority to conduct electronic surveillance or secret physical searches, a designated official of the executive office had to certify that “the purpose” for the surveillance was to obtain foreign intelligence information. In other words, the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies were allowed to surveil “targets” without probable cause — that is so long as the surveillance had something to do with a foreign intelligence investigation.

And then came the double whammy shocks of Oklahoma City and September 11. Lawmakers wasted no time passing the Patriot Act — a virtual wish list of repressive police state and unconstitutional goodies — and minus significant debate. Lawmakers didn’t even bother to read the legislation before inking the act into law at the behest of an imperious and swaggering unelected president. All of a sudden COINTELPRO is back in fashion and ready for business. Reagan, Bush, and the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover prevailed. No Church Committee will be allowed to take the wind out of the sails of snoops this time around.

All of which brings me around to the library again. Under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act FBI agents are visiting libraries across the nation as I write this and possibly taking a look-see at your reading habits. Even bookstore records can be scoured. They don’t even have to tell you about it — and the librarian or bookseller can face prosecution if they say anything.

As Montag knew — in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 — books can be dangerous. The Nazis understood the power of books when they burned 20,000 of them in 1933. So did the Serbs when they torched over a million books and 100,000 manuscripts — the largest book burning in history — at the Sarajevo National Library in 1992.

Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated another secret counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back in those days the feds were checking out what books Soviet bloc citizens were reading in American science libraries. “Agents would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of ‘sensitive but unclassified’ information,” former librarian Herbert Foerstel told Laura Flanders of The Nation last summer.

The American Library Association publicly opposed the Library Awareness Program and it was eventually dropped. But now, with Bush and Ashcroft at the wheel of state — and with the twin cacodemons of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein wagged in our faces at every turn — the patron record confidentiality laws passed over a decade ago by many states are so much water under the proverbial bridge. Privacy is simply no longer patriotic. In fact, it may mean you have something to hide.

Although a bipartisan committee sent a twelve-page letter to John Ashcroft on June 13 demanding details on the implementation of the USA Patriot Act, the government has stonewalled all inquiries. No doubt, now that the Republicans control all three branches of government, Ashcroft’s intransigence will only worsen.

Meanwhile, crouched behind the stacks at your public library, FBI agents may be snooping on the titles you check out. Or bugging the computer terminals. They may be visiting the neighborhood bookstore to find out what books you bought. Books are dangerous. Books are seditious. Free and inquisitive minds are unpatriotic. Questioning the government — as all of the authors mentioned in the first paragraph of this article do — may verge on subversive criminality. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Ashcroft told a Senate committee a few months ago, “my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

Remember: Less than fifty years ago people went to prison for studying the works of Marx and Lenin — and the Supreme Court upheld the convictions. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage and Sedition Act allowed the government to censor the foreign language press and bar it from publishing antiwar sentiments. In 1918, Eugene Debs, a socialist, received a 10-year prison sentence for his public opposition to the war.

Think about this the next time you go to the library.

KURT NIMMO is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He can be reached at:


KURT NIMMO is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Visit his excellent no holds barred blog at . Nimmo is a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. A collection of his essays for CounterPunch, Another Day in the Empire, is now available from Dandelion Books. He can be reached at: