By Janet Nocek
The Hartford Courant
Sunday 22 July 2007
I was gagged by the Patriot Act while the attorney general was free to tell falsehoods about it.
When the USA Patriot Act was being reauthorized in 2005, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales claimed that not one single abuse of the "national security letters" provision had been reported.
It must be his poor memory that caused Mr. Gonzales to tell Congress that no abuse had been reported. What else would explain why he did not mention the reports that described abuses and mismanagement of NSLs - which we now discover were in his possession before his testimony?
I was one of four library colleagues who challenged an NSL in the courts around the time of its reauthorization. We were under a gag order because of the nondisclosure provision of the NSL section of the Patriot Act. This happened even though a judge with high-level security clearance had declared that there was no risk in identifying us as recipients of an NSL.
We were therefore not allowed to testify to Congress about our experience with the letters - which seek information, without court review, on people like library users.
It is more than irksome to now discover that the attorney general was giving Congress false information - at the same time that we recipients of NSLs were not allowed to express our concerns. My colleagues and I were lucky to have our gag order lifted eventually, with the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, after the federal District Court found constitutional problems with that section of the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, we were prohibited from speaking to the public - or even to our U.S. senators and representatives - until after the Patriot Act was reauthorized.
A gag order is very difficult to deal with. A person cannot tell her family or friends she has received a demand from the government to turn in information on another person. Whether you agree with the security-letter provision or not, receiving such a letter is an emotionally wrenching experience.
And if the government requires you to compromise your professional and personal ethics, it can be an intensely disturbing experience. You feel like a character in an Orwellian book. You feel trapped in a world that others like you may inhabit, but you cannot reach outside of that world to find out.
Reportedly hundreds of thousands of security letters have been sent out. The recipients remain gagged and can never speak about their experience, under threat of a five-year prison sentence. They can never describe the scope and nature of the information they give to the FBI.
Therefore, it is laughable to assume that no abuse has been made of the security-letter provision. The secrecy under which the provision is administered guarantees a lack of oversight.
The act was reauthorized without significant change to the nondisclosure provision, which prevents anyone who receives an national security letter from talking about the experience, to anyone, ever.
I don't believe the FBI is to blame for its reported mismanagement of NSLs. The Patriot Act does not effectively address court and congressional oversight. It follows that abuse and mismanagement are practically a given.
Janet Nocek is director of the Portland library and a member of the Executive Board of Library Connection, a Greater Hartford library consortium that received a national security letter in June 2005.