Thursday, April 28, 2005

Terrorists used public libraries for Internet access to check airline reservations prior to the September 11 attacks, a federal attorney yesterday told the House panel looking into renewing the USA Patriot Act.

Kenneth L. Wainstein, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security oversight that investigators traced some of the hijackers’ activities on four separate occasions in August 2001.

Internet accounts registered to Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar were accessed from a state college library in New Jersey. The two men were on the American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.

“The computers in the library were used to review and order airline tickets on an Internet travel reservations site,” Mr. Wainstein said. “The last documented visit to the library occurred on August 30, 2001. On that occasion, records indicate that a person using Alhazmi’s account used the library’s computer to review September 11 reservations that had been previously booked.”

Investigators also discovered that three hijackers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center visited the Delray Beach, Fla., public library in July 2001 and asked to use the library’s computers to access the Internet.

Mr. Wainstein said witnesses identified the men as Wail M. Alshehri and Waleed M. Alshehri, who were aboard American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower, and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the man who took control of United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the South Tower.

The news surprised lawmakers, who warned that eliminating the government’s ability to investigate activities of suspected terrorists at libraries will leave the nation vulnerable to another attack.

“We put Americans’ lives at risk if we foolishly provide sanctuaries — even in our public libraries — for terrorists to operate,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman.

Yesterday’s oversight hearing to review Section 215 of the Patriot Act — which allows the seizure of business and library records to investigate terrorists — is one of several being held throughout April and May by Judiciary Committee subcommittees on provisions of the act that expire Dec. 31.

Privacy advocates and civil libertarians say Section 215 is the most contentious aspect of the law passed by Congress in the aftermath of September 11.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told the committee that Section 215 has been used 35 times, but that it has not been used to obtain library records because they have been volunteered without the special subpoenas.

Gregory Nojeim, chief legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the panel that the provision is overly broad and needs congressional checks and judicial oversight to ensure it is not being abused to spy on Americans.

“With these broad new powers, the government can easily obtain records pertaining to Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism, so long as the records are sought for, or are allegedly relevant to one of these investigations,” Mr. Nojeim said.

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