Friday, August 26, 2005

F.B.I. wants to know if you've read any good books lately

F.B.I., Using Patriot Act, Demands Library's Records.

They used a "national security letter," a non-judicial process for compelling the production of documents, to demand library records from an unnamed Connecticut library.

This is bogus. Are library records ever relevant? Maybe. I read some weird stuff in high school, and if someone saw what I had been flipping through, I'm sure I'd have an FBI file, just in case. But I never blew anything up, never shot up an schools, never got in any trouble. I was interested in terrorism before it was big, and I was reading the books that were out there. No biggie.

In the 1970s, the FBI, CIA and NSA were in the business of tapping phone calls between American citizens. The target groups were extremely vague, for instance, "Quakers" were on the list, due to that church's opposition to the draft and the war in Vietnam. Given that Richard Nixon was raised Quaker, I imagine that made for some awkward discussions.

When the extent of the tapping of conversations was revealed, Congress acted. They established a special secret court which can issue warrants in cases where the subject of the warrant is an agent of a foreign power. Because the standard of proof needed to obtain a warrant is lower, material obtained from such FISA warrants is of questionable legal value in a court case, but I'd rather save lives than make sure some federal prosecutor gets credit for this or that conviction. That's the trade off.

The intelligence agencies were allowed to undertake their own tapping without oversight, and they blew it. The Patriot Act gives them even more power, and no judicial oversight. Whether it's constitutional or not, it's bad policy. I don't see what purpose is served by national security letters that isn't better served by judicial subpoenas.

For more on the history of these intelligence abuses, check out James Bamford's books on the NSA, The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets. There are other excellent resources out there, but these are fun books anyway, and I think they show how easily the NSA could wander down the path to a police state without anyone having to intend that result. Whether someone (Hoover?) did intend to create a police state is a separate question.