I probably have an FBI file. Why do I say that? Because last year I went to my local library and checked out the DVD of a classic film, one that has won renown throughout the world for it’s gritty portrayal of guerrilla warfare, a film that is studied at West Point and the US Army War College by cadets and military officers, as well as by academics and historians.
That film was the La Battaglia di Algeri, known in English translations as “The Battle of Algiers.” It was made by an Italian filmmaker and avowed Marxist, Gillo Pontecorvo. The film was made in 1966, and it tells the story of the First Algierian War through the eyes of both the Algierian Arabs who used terror bombings to attack the French and through the eyes of the French paratroopers who had been sent in to quash the insurgents. The film, though fictional, is highly realistic and has a documentary feel to it. Indeed, one of the main characters is portrayed by a man who was himself one of the principal leaders in the Algierian resistance movement, Saadi Yacef, who also co-produced the movie with Pontecorvo.
Why did checking this film out of my local library likely result in an FBI file being opened in my name? Because of that little impediment to privacy known as the Patriot Act. I was reminded of my decision to watch The Battle of Algiers today when I came across this report at RAW STORY about Connecticut librarians and their fight to prohibit the FBI from obtaining the records of library patrons.
Connecticut librarians spoke about their fight to stop the FBI from gaining access to patrons’ library records at a news conference yesterday organized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and in a subsequent interview with RAW STORY.
The Librarians, members of Library Connection, a not-for profit cooperative organization for resource sharing across 26 Connecticut library branches sharing a centralized computer, were served with a National Security Letter (NSL) in August of last year as part of the FBI’s attempt to attain access to patron’s records.
Ah yes, those ubiquitous National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to peruse any and all records containing your personal information (medical records, financial records, library records, computer records, telephone call records, etc.) whenever they feel like it without the necessity of obtaining a warrant, upon an affidavit alleging probable cause, from a court of law.
The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters — one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people — are extending the bureau’s reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.
Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.
Now, unfortunately I don’t live in Connecticut, where these 26 brave librarians are resisting the NSL letters, which the FBI delivered to them, in a federal court action pending before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. I live in upstate New York, and as far as I know, no library or librarian in my state has taken any legal steps to resist any such NSL letters issued to them by the FBI.
Of course, I don’t know for a fact that an NSL has been issued to my local library, but then, under the Patriot Act, I’m not allowed to know that, because any recipient of these letters is automatically prohibited by law from disclosing they have been served with one. In other words, your telephone company, your internet provider, your local supermarket, your credit card companies, your bank, your doctor, your library — no one with any records about you — can inform you or me that the FBI has served them with a National Security Letter demanding access to our private information.
Now this is just a guess on my part, but I’m willing to bet that anyone who borrows The Battle of Algiers from their local library, or perhaps even those who rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster, is flagged by the FBI as a person of interest requiring further investigation. The film, after all, depicts Arab “terrorists” fighting an insurgent campaign against a foreign occupier who just happens to be a Western power. You don’t have to be particularly brilliant or prescient to conclude that the FBI would like to know the identities of everyone who has viewed this film since 9/11. And since I’m not a military officer with a “legitimate” excuse to watch the film, I wouldn’t be the least surprised that the FBI has compiled a file on me. That is especially the case if my local library has already disclosed the records of what books and films I’ve borrowed pursuant to an NSL letter from the FBI.
Now maybe you think that’s okay. Maybe you believe that anyone who wants to watch such a “subversive film” in a “time of war” deserves to be scrutinized very carefully by the FBI. But the question I have for you is this: How do you know that your personal records haven’t been examined, and a government file has been prepared with information about your personal preferences in books, films, websites, chat rooms, etc.? Or detailing where you have traveled, who you’ve called on the phone, hotels where you’ve stayed, or purchases you’ve made?
Because none of us can know what might trigger the FBI’s interest at this point. There is no judge who rules on what they have the right to demand, nor any other type of oversight. They’ve been given carte blanche to rummage through the personal information of any American they choose, to any extent they choose. None of us can predict which information gleaned from the data provided to the FBI by these thousands of National Security letters will be considered worthy of further investigation. If I am at risk of the government rooting around in my private affairs, then you are at risk as well. We are all at risk.
This last bit is addressed primarily to conservatives and supporters of President Bush.
This isn’t about fighting terror, or making this country safe from our enemies. It’s about keeping tabs on the American Public. It’s about making sure no one gets too far out of line, or starts to become a “troublemaker.” Maybe you trust the Bush administration and the FBI to only use these powers appropriately. But I sure don’t.
The repression of freedom always starts with what leaders consider to be the best of intentions, but history teaches us it rarely stops there. The longer we wait, the more freedoms and privacy rights we will lose. Maybe you don’t mind the prospect living under a regime where the state knows everything about you, a state like like the former Soviet Union where no one was certain who had said what about them to the KGB. Maybe you believe the threat of terror justifies any means necessary, even if that means the surrender of your precious liberty into the hands of the NSA, FBI, DoD and whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office at the moment.
But I sure as hell hope not.