- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

The FBI has abandoned its effort to use a “national-security letter” — a broad and secret demand for communications and financial information — to obtain user records from a group of Connecticut libraries.

The bureau’s New Haven field office wrote to the libraries’ attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), saying it “will not seek to enforce the national security letter delivered to your client, Library Connection, Inc., by FBI personnel on or about July 12, 2005.”

The libraries challenged the constitutionality of the letter in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, saying the letter and the secrecy imposed on its recipients violated the First and Fourth amendments.

“We pursued this matter because librarians should protect the privacy of our patrons,” George Christian, executive director of Library Connection, said yesterday. “Everyone has the responsibility to make sure the government plays by the rules.”

The field office also said the FBI was abandoning its efforts to keep the contents of the national-security letter secret, and the ACLU posted the document for the first time.

The New Haven field office referred inquiries to the FBI headquarters press office in Washington, which did not respond to calls or e-mails requesting comment.

The letters, which the FBI can issue without court approval, can demand a range of telecommunications and financial records from banks, credit companies, telephone companies or Internet service providers, so long as they are seen as “relevant” to a terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation. The law also contains a gag order prohibiting the recipients of a letter from disclosing or discussing the contents.

The FBI said that the Library Connection, a consortium of Connecticut public libraries that provides a shared computer infrastructure, was in effect an Internet service provider.

The letter sought “any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to” a particular computer from 4 to 4:45 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2005.

In May, the judge hearing the Connecticut case lifted the gag order, freeing the librarians to speak about the case for the first time — two months after the USA Patriot Act had been reauthorized and the national-security letter provision was amended in response to concerns that it might be used in broad “fishing expeditions” and that its use against libraries would chill Americans’ rights to free speech.

Mr. Christian said that although he was glad the case was over, he was disappointed that he and his fellow litigants had been unable to testify before Congress.

“They only heard one side of the story,” he said of lawmakers. Partly as a result, he and other critics say, the changes made to national-security letters in the reauthorization legislation are, in Mr. Christian’s words, “a mixed bag.”

Although the law now specifies that national-security letters can be disclosed to the recipients’ attorneys and challenged in court, the other gag provisions — relating to public disclosure of the letter — were “even more draconian,” he said.

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