September 16, 2002


In the post 9/11 world, there is undoubtedly a government official whose job is to invent innocuous-sounding, if not reassuring, acronyms for government initiatives against terrorism.

Operation TIPS is a case in point. The Terrorism Information and Prevention System will recruit millions of utility, transportation and other workers to report on "potentially unusual or suspicious activity in public places." In other words, Operations TIPS is using private citizens to spy on each other.

The Bush administration's reliance on acronyms with public-relations punch was apparent as early as last October when, still reeling from the events of Sept. 11, it proposed and Congress swiftly passed the USA Patriot Act ("The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" Act of 2001). Like Operation TIPS, the label doesn't tell the whole story.

Among the less well-known aspects of the Patriot Act are provisions permitting the Justice Department to obtain information secretly from booksellers and librarians about customers' and patrons' reading, Internet and book-buying habits, merely by alleging that the records are relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation. The act prohibits librarians and booksellers from disclosing these subpoenas, so the objects of investigation don't know and therefore cannot defend themselves and their privacy, or contest the government's actions in court.

In a sample of 1,000 libraries responding to a survey last February, 85 reported receiving requests to turn over information about patrons to police or FBI agents. We have no way to know how many other libraries, and how many booksellers, received similar requests. We don't know how many requests were made under the Patriot Act, because of its secrecy provisions. What we do know is that the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain information secretly from librarians and booksellers about customers' and patrons' interests and activities, and that law enforcement officials are seeking such information. The Justice Department has refused to provide any data about these investigations, even to Congress.

Librarians and booksellers have voiced their dismay at being conscripted, under court order and threat of prosecution, to report covertly on their patrons and customers. Secretly obtaining information about what people read, to try to figure out what they think, undermines more than privacy; it threatens core First Amendment principles, as many librarians and booksellers understand.

The Constitution clearly protects the right to read a book, embrace an idea or express a thought—even an unpopular or "unpatriotic" book, idea or thought. The freedom of thought and expression is so fundamental to our democracy that, as the Supreme Court recently noted, the "government may not prohibit speech because it increases the chance an unlawful act will be committed 'at some indefinite future time.'" In so holding, the court relied on the "vital distinction between words and deed, between ideas and conduct." In other words, the government is free to prohibit and punish illegal conduct, but may not criminalize ideas or punish people for their thoughts. Perversely, under the Patriot Act, reading certain books or researching certain topics—both constitutionally protected activities—now apparently provide grounds for criminal investigation.

The Justice Department's recent decision to repeal the domestic terrorism surveillance guidelines unmistakably sends this signal. The guidelines were adopted in 1976 in response to revelations that, under the infamous COINTELPRO ("counterintelligence") program, civil rights and anti-war activists who were neither accused nor suspected of crimes became targets of government investigation because of their outspoken criticism of government policies. To prevent such abuses, the 1976 guidelines authorized surveillance of political, religious and other groups only if there was actual evidence of criminal activity. Without this restriction, covert surveillance of political dissidents with no known connection to criminal activity is bound to resume.

According to a brief recently filed by the Justice Department in defense of secret immigration hearings, the "First Amendment creates no general right of access to government information or operations." The gag order imposed on librarians and booksellers goes even further in withholding information from the object of an investigation. As a result, proceedings under the act will be shrouded in secrecy, not only making it impossible for targeted individuals to counter the government's allegations, but also preventing the public at large from making an informed judgment about whether the government is effectively countering terrorism or unfairly targeting innocent people.

The rush to enact programs with reassuring-sounding names may have been understandable a year ago. Now, however, it would be patriotic to consider whether, despite their appealing acronyms, some hastily enacted programs threaten the freedoms we value most. It is peculiar, to say the least, for our government to fight terrorists by adopting their techniques—secrecy and intimidation.

Besides, exactly how many terrorists does the FBI expect to find through the local library or the bookstore?