Feds Question Student for Requesting Book of Mao Tse-Tung Quotations
The student said the agents told him that the book he requested was on a "watch list," and his "significant time" overseas, coupled with his request for the book, triggered the escalated level of scrutiny given to him. Provisions of the Patriot Act allow federal law enforcement authorities to compel surrender of library records based upon so-called National Security Letters, which function as extra-judicial subpoenas for documents and electronic records from libraries and other original sources of information regarding the reading, Internet surfing, and other information-gathering activities of individuals conducted at libraries. It is not clear the extent to which review of interlibrary loan requests would require such Letters.
Given that the targeted student's submission was made at a public university, the loan request likely went through one of the many such public networks that exist within the United States. Academic and other libraries participate in such interlibrary systems in order to provide patrons with broader access to literature than might be available within a given library. Many libraries, including those at the University of Massachusetts, subscribe to multiple services. The interloan library networks, generally governed by the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States, have been a particular boon to smaller libraries without the resources to have vast collections on site and available for end users. Additionally, academic librariesespecially those at small, satellite campuses and at community collegescan offer far greater opportunities for study, research, and general enjoyment to their students and faculty. The public nature of many of these interlibrary loan networks creates the possibility, however, that requests submitted through them are a matter of public record and are therefore open to scrutiny by law enforcement authorities without the need for either judicial or extra-judicial sanction.
Particularly troublesome, however, is the apparent ability of federal agents to survey these records and pick out information from what constitute many thousands of loan requests submitted on a daily basis.
Two broad possibilities can be conjectured. First, the Department of Homeland Security and perhaps other federal agencies simply have access to these networks, and document loan requests are being subjected to "keyword" searches that trigger "flags" based upon a "watch list" maintained by the federal law enforcement community. Second and more ominous is the possibility that requests are being fed into a database, which then applies more sophisticated analysis that includes the construction of a "threat matrix" based upon, among other criteria, the titles of literature requested, the individuals making the requests, the libraries from which requests are being made, and the types and patterns of literature that have been requested over a period of time by a given person. The fact that the student was interviewed based upon more than just the title of the book he wanted might indicate that some version of the second analysis is in use.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation was contacted for information or comment regarding this article. (Yeah, right. Like I'm really going to call the FBI and say, "Hello, Mr. G-Man, sir, I'd like to ask you some pointed and probative questions about just what you guys think you're doing snooping into people's interlibrary loan requests." Sure, I'll do that; and I'll let you know what I find out just as soon as I get back from the rendition trip to Romania. The Dark Wraith might be odd enough to occasionally refer to himself in the third person, but he's not stupid enough to volunteer for a session with some very bad man named Omar who lacks many teeth and wears thick rubber gloves.)
As a matter of prudence, those seeking literature through interlibrary loan networks should be aware of the risks involved. Although it is unlikely that law enforcement authorities would provide a comprehensive list of literature that could trigger an escalation of analysis by authorities, it is clear from the incident involving the University of Massachusetts student that literature about Communism or writings by Communists are within the scope of the triggers. Further reports by individuals of interviews following interlibrary loan requests might reveal other types of literature that could be on a law enforcement watch list. More broadly, it is unclear whether or not the watch list is applied only to interlibrary loan requests or if the actual purchase of books through private vendors, particularly those selling online, is subject to scrutiny, as well. The latter means of accessing literature would, of course, not be a matter of public record in the same way as would be requests posted on an interlibrary loan network; but the curious reader might want to click on the graphic at the top of this article to go to the Barne's & Noble Webpage offering a nice book of quotations by Mao Tse-Tung, arguably the most successful despot of the 20th Century. (That book of quotations, above, essentially is The Little Red Book in translation, by the way.) Should the viewing of that page or the purchase of the book through that site trigger a non-custodial interview by law enforcement authorities, it would be appreciated if the incident were reported to the author of this article. Should the review or purchase lead to a custodial interview or more serious trouble, the author will understand the lack of feedback on the matter.
The Dark Wraith awaits any information that affected readers can provide.