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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Library Association Boss Calls Patriot Act ‘Kafkaesque’

The president of the American Library Association has one word for the USA Patriot Act's so-called library clause -- "Kafkaesque."

The president of the American Library Association has one word for the USA Patriot Act’s so-called library clause — “Kafkaesque.”

“It’s very reminiscent of the ’50s and the ‘red scare’ where people showed up at libraries trying to find which political books professors had read, because they were going to be put on a communist list or something,” said Michael Gorman, a British-born librarian who heads the U.S. library group.

“Where it doesn’t seem sinister, it seems comic.”

Alluding to writers George Orwell and Franz Kafka, Gorman said of the Patriot Act, “I’m much too fond of Orwell to call it Orwellian, but it’s Kafkaesque.”

Where Orwell’s novel “1984” foresaw a future where the government spied on everyone and Kafka’s “The Trial” told of one man’s futile battle against unnamed government charges, Gorman said the Patriot Act intrudes on privacy but has little chance of accomplishing its aim of protecting against terrorism.

Enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act lets U.S. authorities get approval from a special court to search personal records of terror suspects from bookstores, businesses, hospitals and libraries, in a provision known as the library clause.


Gorman seemed almost amused as he detailed what he saw as the government’s rationale for this, noting the irony in a Justice Department statement that it has never used the provision, but still needs it “just in case.”

“It’s so important that we have to do these things under cloak of darkness and the populace can’t know about it, and by the way, we’ve never done it,” Gorman said in an interview with Reuters last week as the Patriot Act was discussed on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. House of Representatives, ignoring protests from civil liberties groups, voted on Thursday to reauthorize 16 provisions of the act that expire at the end of the year, including the library clause.

In a move to add civil liberty safeguards, it also passed an amendment requiring the director of the FBI to personally approve all requests for library or bookstore records.

Republicans said there had been no documented instances of civil liberty abuses since the act was originally passed in 2001. But Democrats said the government had requested individuals’ library records more than 200 times.

The Senate is expected to take up the matter after lawmakers return from an August recess.


For librarians, this is a particularly onerous law, since it forbids them from telling library users that such a search is underway, eroding the presumed trust between librarians and readers. Any librarian who violated this provision would be guilty of a felony, Gorman said.

It is particularly difficult to understand, he said, because librarians typically cooperate with regular subpoenas for library records, obtained in regular U.S. courts, and make public that the order has been issued.

Despite the Justice Department’s contention that the Patriot Act has not been used to seek personal data about library users, librarians said in a survey that law enforcement had sought that information at least 268 times since 2001.

So far, no librarian has openly flouted the Patriot Act, Gorman said.

“There’s been no public case,” he said. “There was some speculation in the beginning that maybe a test case will be found. … Either it hasn’t happened or they haven’t found a suitable test case, or they haven’t found a librarian with the intestinal fortitude to do it.”

Gorman said he would be reluctant to go to jail to defend the implicit trusted relationship between librarians and readers.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m a 64-year-old academic librarian,” he said. “I’m not going to go to prison over that kind of stuff.”

© Reuters 2005.