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Read Alert

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library," said Jorge Luis Borges.

And standing at the gates to that paradise will be a librarian, one index finger pressed to pursed lips while the other punches the delete key on the computer system tracking patrons' reading records, both naughty and nice.

Strip that librarian as bare as the statue in the lobby of the Department of Justice, and you have John Ashcroft's personal vision not of heaven, but of hell. Of an avenging angel who managed to wring a rare public concession from the attorney general. Pounded on both sides during his sixteen-state, eighteen-city tour touting the almost-two-year-old Patriot Act (officially known as Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), last week Ashcroft finally surrendered this bit of information: "The number of times section 215 has been used to date is zero."

Section 215 is the provision of the Patriot Act that allows the federal government to "seek records from libraries, bookstores or other businesses" when securing such records would further "an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

Ashcroft shared the newly declassified FBI memo reluctantly, grudgingly, in response to "baseless hysteria" promulgated by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and other civil-rights groups on both the right and the left. "To date, we have not been able to counter the troubling amount of public distortion and misinformation in connection with section 215," he said. "Consequently, I have determined that it is in the public interest and the best interest of law enforcement to declassify this information."

Declassify the information, but not remove section 215 from the Patriot Act.

"Obviously, I'd go much further," says Patricia Schroeder, former Colorado congresswoman, current president of the Association of American Publishers, and no stranger to going further. "He's saying he hasn't used it. Well, fine -- get rid of it."

Schroeder has been head of the AAP for six years, which gives her a ringside seat in Washington, D.C., for the battle over civil liberties. Sometimes she's right in the middle of the action, moderating debates between Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly -- "I needed a whip and a chair," she says -- and taking on the Patriot Act's most obtrusive provisions. "The Attorney General doesn't like us," she notes.

But really, what's for Ashcroft to like? Schroeder's organization is "very supportive of trying to get legislation passed that takes out bookstores and libraries," she notes -- and she knows firsthand what it might take to get such legislation passed. First, Congress must get far more aggressive than it did this summer, when the House of Representatives imposed some financial limitations on the "sneak-and-peek" provisions of Section 13 of the Patriot Act, which expands the government's ability to conduct searches. If she were still in the House, "I would be going insane," Schroeder says. "Nothing's happening. Nothing. If they do anything, they name a post office -- and they're running out of post offices."

Second, Ashcroft -- his own worst enemy -- needs to stay on the lecture circuit. "I think we ought to do a little fundraiser to keep the attorney general on tour," she says.

And third, people must support true patriots who stand up for civil liberties. The librarians in Santa Cruz, California, for example, who early on posted this warning: "Although the Santa Cruz Library makes every effort to protect your privacy, under the federal USA Patriot Act, records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents. That federal law prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you. Questions about policy should be directed to: Attorney General John Ashcroft." Or librarians in Boulder and other enlightened cities (not Denver, sadly), who've streamlined their record-keeping and now delete files as soon as books are returned -- just in case the feds come knocking.

And brave booksellers like Joyce Meskis, who back in 2000 stood up to members of the North Metro Drug Task Force when they tried to execute a search warrant at the Tattered Cover, whose envelope and invoice they'd found in a meth lab in north Denver. "Meskis has more guts than all of them put together," says Schroeder. "She's one of the very few people who'll say no." And she continued to say no through a lengthy appeals process that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ultimately determined that the search warrant was invalid. Only then was the subject of the dangerous book revealed: It was a guide to Japanese calligraphy.

Schroeder can read the writing on the wall. Even as booksellers, libraries and publishers alike celebrate Banned Books Week through Saturday (Harry Potter is now the most banned book in America, she says, with Captain Underpants and works by Maya Angelou close contenders), much more than specific volumes is at stake. "We have this 'Get Caught Reading' Campaign,'" says Schroeder. "We wanted to make reading sound like so much fun that Congress would ban it if they found out." That was back in 1997, she remembers, when "so many reading ads looked like 'Eat your peas.'" But after 9/11, reading itself suddenly looked like a threat to peace.

The ad campaign designed to be merely edgy has become prophetic. "Now you could get caught reading by John Ashcroft," Schroeder concludes. "Why would you read a banned book? Because you can."


Why Spy?

Last September, a steady stream of political activists, civil libertarians and assorted gadflies passed through the Denver Police Department's downtown headquarters, determined to find out whether they rated inclusion in the infamous "spy files."

The existence of those files had come to light in March 2002, after a chance discovery of citizen surveillance by the DPD led to the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filing suit against Denver on behalf of six plaintiffs who'd done nothing more threatening to the republic than exercise their right to free speech. Then-mayor Wellington Webb assigned three judges to investigate, and that panel ultimately determined that the DPD's computerized intelligence files were a hopeless mess, with 200 groups and 3,000 individuals -- including some police-department honorees -- sharing space with known criminals. Webb ordered the files purged. But first, people could stop by police headquarters to learn if they had a file.

The process went relatively smoothly -- until another chance discovery found more files in the intelligence bureau, hard copies that included the names of as many as 10,000 individuals and close to 1,000 groups.

Five months ago, the city settled with the ACLU. Under the terms of the deal, the old files are all defunct -- the plaintiffs want them archived at the Colorado Historical Society or the Denver Public Library, and Mayor John Hickenlooper agrees -- and new rules govern the creation of any future files. The DPD's intelligence policy now "specifically forbids keeping files on individuals solely because they engage in expressive activity that takes the form of non-violent civil disobedience that amounts to no more than a misdemeanor offense," notes the ACLU's Mark Silverstein. An independent judge will audit the city's compliance with the settlement -- as soon as the city approves the judge's contract, that is.

The suit may be settled, but unsettling international ramifications remain. In the course of pursing the case, Silverstein says, the ACLU discovered that "the DPD is part of a heretofore unknown group that shares intelligence among dozens of Colorado intelligence agencies -- the Multi-Agency Group Intelligence Conference." MAGIC's shared intelligence involves such "extremist groups" as the pacificist American Friends Service Committee, an original spy-files plaintiff.

One exhibit now posted on the ACLU's Web site lists the license plates of individuals attending a peaceful rally in Colorado Springs last June, a list sent to a DPD officer assigned full-time to the FBI. "We fear that in the name of the war on terrorism, the federal government and the FBI are getting closer and closer to the old regime of routinely equating any protest to a threat on the national security," Silverstein says. Another group of documents indicate that someone's been lurking on the e-mail lists of legitimate protest groups, then forwarding information to other intelligence agencies.

"Denver has agreed to restrictions that protect civil liberties," he points out. "The FBI has gone the other way. Does the FBI play by Denver rules, or can it play by FBI rules?"

Fearing they knew the answer, plaintiffs in the case added another settlement term: Everyone whose spy file was purged would get a letter from the DPD noting that the file had been purged, Silverstein says, "so that they could at least have this letter -- the closest thing to a letter of apology or exoneration that we could get -- in case they were interrogated by some security officials."

And Silverstein, the subject of a spy file, did receive such a letter. A form letter that did not include his name, addressed to "To Whom It May Concern."


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