Skip to: Content
Skip to: Section Navigation
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

FBI in Your Library

Frequently Asked Questions

In the News: FBI in Your Library

The Attorney General’s Guidelines


Library Awareness Program

Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro)

In Defense of Freedom

ALA Policy on Governmental Intimidation  

Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS)

Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Libraries and National Security: An Historical Review (December 30, 2004)

Other Sources


The Attorney General’s Guidelines

The Attorney General’s Guidelines
“New policies developed by Attorney General Ashcroft on the power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate Americans pose serious threats to the right of individuals to speak and assemble freely without the spectre of government monitoring. The policies also threaten Fourth Amendment rights, as Ashcroft has permitted the FBI to engage in prospective searches without possessing any evidence of suspicious behavior. At a time when it is clear that the FBI has been awash in data and unable to process leads effectively, Ashcroft has enabled the agency to obtain even more information that is less likely to result in solid leads.”

CDT’s Guide to the FBI Guidelines: Impact on Civil Libreties and Security

Changes to FBI Guidelines

In the News: FBI in Your Library

Libraries and National Security: An Historical Review (December 30, 2004)
"The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks launched the United States into a new era of defensive preparedness. The U.S. federal government’s first legislative action in October 2001 was the passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act). The USA PATRIOT Act introduced a greatly heightened level of government intrusion into many aspects of ordinary life, including library use. When, in the past, authorities called upon the library profession to serve national security interests in these ways, individual librarians and the profession as a whole have experienced an evolving tension between their roles as guardians of public well–being and as protectors of intellectual freedom. This is a fundamental issue, one that reflects upon the profession’s view of itself and of its place in American life. Librarians once again face this challenge. An inquiry into the similarities and differences with the past may aid in suggesting a response that is both professionally sound and individually appropriate."

Fight FBI Authority to Monitor Reading Habits    (May 20, 2003)
Information is the most valuable resource on the planet. It allows people to make informed decisions, learn and better themselves. No one should be afraid to seek out information and read what they want.”

Things We Lost in the Fire (September 13, 2002)
“A man approaches a librarian to ask for help finding a text. ‘These books are no longer available,’ she replies, in a pinched, Peter Lorre-like voice. ‘May I have your name please?’ A couple of suited thugs take the library patron away.”

The Soldier of the Constitution: Keeping the FBI Lawful (August 23, 2002)
“I sure wish Don Edwards were still in Congress so I could see him on C-SPAN confronting John Ashcroft with a copy of the Constitution.”

Secret Court Rebuffs Ashcroft (August 23, 2002)
“The secretive federal court that approves spying on terror suspects in the United States has refused to give the Justice Department broad new powers, saying the government had misused the law and misled the court dozens of times, according to an extraordinary legal ruling released yesterday.”

ABFFE Files Freedom of Information Request with Justice Dept. (August 21, 2002)
“The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship, today filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to learn how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers under the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. The Justice Department has refused to make this information public despite a request by the House Judiciary Committee. ‘The PATRIOT Act gives the Justice Department the power to investigate the reading habits of American citizens,’ ABFFE President Chris Finan said. ‘We want to make sure this power isn’t abused.’”

Justice Dept. Balks at Effort to Study Antiterror Powers (August 15, 2002)
“They asked about ‘roving’ surveillance; lists of calls to and from telephone numbers; demands for bookstore, library and newspaper records; and subpoenas under the amended Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act served on Americans or permanent residents. Some simpler questions, about Immigration and Naturalization Service employees the Canadian border, were answered.”

Ashcroft’s Assault on Bookstores: The Fiction Behind National Security (July 25, 2002)
“The effect of the USA Patriot Act upon businesses that loan, rent, or sell books, videos, magazines, and music CDs is not to find and incarcerate terrorists—there are far more ways to investigate threats to the nation than to check on a terrorist’s reading and listening habits—but to put a sweeping chilling effect upon Constitutional freedoms. The Act butts against the protections of the First (free speech), Fourth (unreasonable searches), Fifth (right against self-incrimination), and Sixth (due process)amendments.”

Librarians Under Siege
“It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism, but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get librarians to spy.”

Terrorism measure worries librarians (July 25, 2002)
“Michael Tyree, director of West Bend Public Library, is concerned about terrorism but is equally concerned about preserving American freedom, he said. If the FBI gets easy access to people’s library records, then the terrorists will have succeeded in eroding democracy, he said.”

A chill in the library (July 23, 2002)
“Under the USA-Patriot Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, librarians have been made unwitting partners in the FBI’s search for potential terrorists. Any records a library might retain on a patron’s reading choices or Internet use are now retrievable by federal law enforcement with an easily obtainable court order. Librarians, traditionally defenders of intellectual freedom, are being pressed to become extensions of law enforcement, and many are balking at the new job description.”

Patriot Act touches nerve at BR libraries
“A new law that lets FBI agents check out the reading habits of people suspected of links to terrorists has touched a nerve with some local library officials.”

House Questions Ashcroft on Bookstore, Library, Newspaper Subpoenas
“NEW YORK, N.Y., June 25, 2002 — The House Judiciary Committee wants to know how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers under a controversial provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression reported today. The committee has also asked whether any safeguards have been adopted to prevent an abuse of the power to search these records, which was granted under Section 215 of the act. ABFFE President Chris Finan welcomed the Judiciary Committee inquiry. ‘Booksellers and libraries are worried that Section 215 will have a chilling effect on free speech,’ Finan said. ‘These are the questions that we have wanted to ask.’”

Area libraries balance respect for privacy, terror fight
“Under the Patriot Act, law-enforcement officials must still back up their library-search requests with a warrant from a court. But that court meets in secret to hear the FBI’s reasons for suspicion, critics say, and legal standards for obtaining warrants are not as tough as standards for traditional search warrants.”

FBI Begins Visiting Libraries
“The FBI is visiting libraries nationwide and checking the reading records of people it suspects of having ties to terrorists or plotting an attack, library officials say.”

FBI monitoring library records in terror probe
“First, the FBI must obtain a search warrant from a court that meets in secret to hear the agency’s case. The FBI must show it has reason to suspect that a person is involved with a terrorist or a terrorist plot — far less difficult than meeting the tougher legal standards of probable cause, required for traditional search warrants.”

FBI Checks Out Library Record of Terrorist Suspects
“[T]he University of Illinois conducted a survey of 1,020 public libraries in January and February and found that 85 libraries had been asked by federal or local law enforcement officers for information about patrons related to Sept. 11, said Ed Lakner, assistant director of research at the school’s Library Research Center.”

FBI is Searching Library Records for Terror Leads
“The process by which the FBI gains access to library records is quick and mostly secret under the Patriot Act.”

FBI checking out Americans’ reading habits; Bookstores, libraries can’t do much to fend off search warrants
“The searches of some records kept by libraries and bookstores were authorized in an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, quietly approved by Congress six weeks after Sept. 11. The act, passed virtually without hearings or debate, allowed a variety of new federal surveillance measures, including clandestine searches of homes and expanded monitoring of telephones and the Internet. Section 215 gave the FBI authority to obtain library and bookstore records and a wide range of other documents during investigations of international terrorism or secret intelligence activities.”

FBI wants to track your Web trail
“[C]ivil liberties advocates warn that last week’s proposal is the latest step along a worrying path back to the 1950s and ’60s—days when investigators compiled dossiers on innocent American citizens based on their religious and political practices. ”

The Bad Old Days at the FBI
“The documents should be required reading for the Bush administration and Congress as they consider how to reconfigure domestic intelligence. These accounts of the F.B.I.’s malfeasance are a powerful reminder of how easily intelligence organizations deployed to protect freedom can become its worst enemy.”

The Library Awareness Program

Surveillance in the Stacks: The FBI’s Library Awareness Program

Resolution in Opposition to FBI Library Awareness Program (1988)

Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro)

Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro)
“COINTELPRO is an acronym for the FBI's domestic ‘counterintelligence programs’ to neutralize political dissidents. Although covert operations have been employed throughout FBI history, the formal COINTELPRO's of 1956–1971 were broadly targeted against radical political organizations. The origins of COINTELPRO were rooted in the Bureau's operations against hostile foreign intelligence services. Counterintelligence, of course, goes beyond investigation; it refers to actions taken to neutralize enemy agents. ‘Counterintelligence’ was a misnomer for the FBI programs, since the targets were American political dissidents, not foreign spies. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, the American Communist Party was viewed as a serious threat to our national security. Over the years, anti-Communist paranoia extended to civil rights, anti-war, and many other groups.”

Spying on America: The FBI's Domestic Counterintelligence Program by James Kirkpatrick Davis

Other Sources

House Questions Ashcroft on Bookstore, Library, Newspaper Subpoenas (FEN Newswire, June 25, 2002)
The House Judiciary Committee wants to know how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to bookstores, libraries and newspapers under a controversial provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression reported today. The committee has also asked whether any safeguards have been adopted to prevent an abuse of the power to search these records, which was granted under Section 215 of the act. ABFFE President Chris Finan welcomed the Judiciary Committee inquiry. “Booksellers and libraries are worried that Section 215 will have a chilling effect on free speech,” Finan said. “These are the questions that we have wanted to ask.”

On June 13, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the committee, sent Attorney General John D. Ashcroft a 12-page letter seeking details about the implementation of 50 provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including Section 215. The letter asks for written answers by July 9 and indicates that hearings will follow.

Although it does not criticize the PATRIOT Act directly, the Sensenbrenner/Conyers letter seems to suggest that the Justice Department should exercise restraint in seeking subpoenas for bookstore, library and newspaper records. Section 215 gives the government far more power to search bookstore, library and newspaper records than it has ever possessed. The FBI can request a court order in a secret hearing before a special “spy” court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), making it impossible for anyone to oppose the request on First Amendment grounds. In addition, the FBI does not need to show a compelling need for the information; it is sufficient to prove that it is relevant to an investigation.

Without recommending them, the letter identifies two potential safeguards: “requiring supervisory approval” before the records are sought or “requiring a determination that the information is essential to an investigation and could not be obtained through any other means.”

(Bookstore, library and newspaper records are covered in Question 12.)

In Defense of Freedom

In Defense of Freedom

Signers include the American Library Association and the Freedom to Read Foundation.

  1. On September 11, 2001 thousands of people lost their lives in a brutal assault on the American people and the American form of government. We mourn the loss of these innocent lives and insist that those who perpetrated these acts be held accountable.
  2. This tragedy requires all Americans to examine carefully the steps our country may now take to reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks.
  3. We need to consider proposals calmly and deliberately with a determination not to erode the liberties and freedoms that are at the core of the American way of life.
  4. We need to ensure that actions by our government uphold the principles of a democratic society, accountable government and international law, and that all decisions are taken in a manner consistent with the Constitution.
  5. We can, as we have in the past, in times of war and of peace, reconcile the requirements of security with the demands of liberty.
  6. We should resist the temptation to enact proposals in the mistaken belief that anything that may be called anti-terrorist will necessarily provide greater security.
  7. We should resist efforts to target people because of their race, religion, ethnic background or appearance, including immigrants in general, Arab Americans and Muslims.
  8. We affirm the right of peaceful dissent, protected by the First Amendment, now, when it is most at risk.
  9. We should applaud our political leaders in the days ahead who have the courage to say that our freedoms should not be limited.
  10. We must have faith in our democratic system and our Constitution, and in our ability to protect at the same time both the freedom and the security of all Americans.


"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, "The One Un-American Act." Nieman Reports, vol. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1953): p. 20.

“Lack of privacy and confidentiality has a chilling effect on users’ choices. All users have a right to be free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use.”—Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”—Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S. (1928)

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”—Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”—Benjamin Franklin

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.

Related Links

Terrorism Information Awareness