By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Civil-liberties heroes

Kudos to officials in Newton, who refused earlier this week to let the FBI grab computers at the public library without a warrant. Dan Atkinson covered the story yesterday in the Newton Tab; his article was also published in the Boston Herald, the Tab’s corporate big brother. Ralph Ranalli follows up in the Boston Globe today.

Yet this isn’t entirely clear-cut. Reportedly nearby Brandeis University had been threatened with a terrorist attack over the Internet, and the FBI was able to trace the threat to a computer at the Newton Free Library. It’s not inconceivable that time was of the essence.

In today’s Boston Herald, columnist Virginia Buckingham writes (sub. req.), “Why would law enforcement want to look at those Newton library computers? They’d want to know, ‘Is this part of a wider conspiracy?’ one senior federal law enforcement officer told me. ‘The quicker you can get access to information, the quicker you can determine if the threat is real and notify law enforcement around the country.'”

I don’t dismiss that out of hand, although I think Buckingham is too quick to buy into the FBI’s most dire scenario. As Ranalli writes in the Globe, “Gail Marcinkiewicz, Boston FBI spokeswoman, said yesterday that the bureau contends that the agents could have seized the computers without a warrant, under the legal theory that they were ‘evidence of a crime in plain view.'”

Whether you buy that or not, it seems pretty clear from Marcinkiewicz’s comments that if FBI agents were absolutely convinced they had to have access to the computers immediately, they would have acted first and figured out the legalities later. That they didn’t suggests that library director Kathy Glick-Weil did exactly the right thing.

In a measured statement (PDF), the ACLU of Massachusetts praised Newton officials. According to executive director Carol Rose:

To be sure, we should all be concerned with the delay in law enforcement’s access to the computer after it was identified as a possible source of a threat. But the delay is not the fault of the librarian. She was complying with the law, and we expect police officers and the FBI to do the same.

Clearly, after 9/11, there should have been a procedure in place to ensure that law enforcement could promptly obtain a search warrant in an emergency situation. In a situation like this, the answer is not to simply shelve the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but to create an expedited process for obtaining search warrants. We can address security concerns without surrendering basic constitutional rights.

Those are words President Bush ought to consider with respect to the no-warrant wiretapping program he so pugnaciously defends. If the law makes it too difficult to investigate suspected terrorists, work to change it — don’t violate it.

Update: More details from the Newton Tab’s Web site.

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  1. Anonymous

    Dan, I don’t think you really intended to, but I think you’re giving Bush way too much credit when you say, “If the law makes it too difficult to investigate suspected terrorists, work to change it — don’t violate it.”As far as I’ve been able to tell, that’s always been a phony argument. It wasn’t because of bureaucratic delays that they chose to break the law and go forward without warrants. It was because the spying was going to be so widespread and so indiscriminate, i.e., so completely unconstitutional, they knew they wouldn’t be able to get warrants.Sorry to be snarky, but this is important. The feds had all the tools they needed and then some to prevent the 9/11 attacks. They failed and now they want to rescind the constitution. pg

  2. Steve

    Anon 10:43 is right on the money – it’s a phony argument.As Glenn Greenwald points out here, in June 2002 the administration opposed a bill (S-2659) introduced by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH), which proposed to modify the standard of proof to obtain a FISA warrant from “probable cause” to “reasonable suspicion”.Far from “working to change” the law – the administration opposed changing the law, then went ahead and violated it anyway.

  3. Bill Baar

    I don’t know how it works with computers but I used to get bomb threats at work and I don’t believe the police needed a warrant to trace the calls.My kid’s school gets evactuated with bomb threats each spring, and they catch the callers, and again I don’t believe they use warrents to trace those calls either.I’m glad that’s so.

  4. Bill Baar

    Threats over the phone on mean..not emailed threats… but I think it’s a diff only in technology and not the law.

  5. Anonymous

    It must be wonderful to be the ACLU. 20-20 hindsight. Protecting our cherished liberties, secure in the knowledge that if they are less than 100% correct, the poor slobs that get blown up are someone else’s problem. Someday someone will explain to me how the ACLU managed to avoid having any responsibilities attached to their actions, unlike the rest of us. Guess they’re just smarter than the rest of us.

  6. Anonymous

    Yes, how cowardly and stupid to stand up for our Constitution. pg

  7. Bill Baar

    Bush is constitutionally obligated to defend the priveleges of the Executive, especailly when he uses them to defend the constitution and our Republic.He’s no different then any other past prez in that respect.Someone phones / emails a bomb threat, he’s obligated by law to act. He’s doesn’t need a warrent from a judge for that, and in fact would probably get impeached for waiting if he did.Remember after 911 when many some in Congress suggested Bush knew, or should have known, in advance and did nothing?

  8. Anonymous

    Maybe someone should go to Beacon Hill and use one of their computers to email in a bomb threat. Wouldn’t the ensuing circus just be wonderful to watch on NECN.Fear and idiocy in America. I’m willing to bet that 90% of the terror threats investigated in this country are made by white Amerikans with an agenda.

  9. Anonymous

    Well Bill. You’ll also remember that Ken Starr’s office used illegally taped conversations between Lewinsky and ‘that fat ugly bitch’ to make it’s case. Also, the Republicans had access to the Dems emails for one year before they got busted. Sounds like the government does whatever it wants. So if you aren’t interested in protecting your privacy, I’d love to have my 40th birthday party at your house next month. Please post the address so we can have one-heluva turnout.

  10. mike_b1

    If these all these warrantless maneuvers are so critical, why wasn’t the government using them before to crack drug rings and gangs?Perhaps because Halliburton doesn’t stand to gain from the dismantling of the Crips? Nah…

  11. Anonymous

    For those of you doubting that a warrant is needed: I’m a librarian. In the two states that I have worked in, library records (including those on use of resources) are specifically mentioned in privacy laws. Staff are not allowed to give that information out to anyone except the patron him/herself, not even a spouse. We cannot give it to the police unless they have a warrant or the Patriot Act is invoked.I cannot speak for Massachusetts law, as I don’t live there, but I would not be surprised to find it had something similar.From my viewpoint, I’d just once like to see a story like this run where it’s spun as “Librarian follows law and demands warrant so evidence will not be thrown out of court later or abused by individuals.” Instead, most of the stories I’ve read make the library director sound like she’s just doing this to impede the FBI. If they wanted the information and it was a terrorist threat, they could have gotten it through two different channels, and the Newton officials were correct to ask them to follow the law.

  12. Anonymous

    But NATIONAL SECURITY was at stake!!!!! Wouldn’t you give up your car so that the FEDS could run over a TERRORIST?!? Where is your patriotic spirit. 911 People!!! Mushroom clouds!!!! Connect the Dots!!!It’s liberal states like these that make for a weak nation.

  13. Anonymous

    Bill Baar said…”I used to get bomb threats at work and they didn’t need a warrant to trace the calls”Yeah but that’s because your ex-wife and kids were calling them in, LOSER.

  14. Neil

    Again too bad this has scrolled off the visible topics.Today’s Globe has an op-ed by Richard L. Cravatts, a BU lecturer, who comes down hard against the librarians. He makes a credible case that the librarian misunderstood the Patriot Act, but then cannot resist a gratuitous slur on the qualifications of librarians to safeguard our rights:More to the point, why are librarians, whose professional training concentrates on mastering the Dewey Decimal System, making any decisions that affect law enforcement? By whose authority and with what knowledge are they defining and granting constitutional rights to their patrons? Where have they received training in emergency response, domestic security, and thwarting terrorist threats?By whose authority? If not them, then who, Mr. Cravatts? Shall we instead place our unquestioned trust in the FBI? No thanks.

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