Wednesday, December 21, 2005

More on the "Little Red Book" Controversy

Some new information has come to light since my first post on the UMass-Dartmouth "Little Red Book" saga (most links courtesy of Brian Ulrich):

-This story from Inside Higher Ed offers a little bit more detail:

Shortly after the student filed his request — providing his name, address and phone number — two agents arrived at his parent’s house, where he lives. They asked him to prove why he wanted the book, which they indicated was on a “watch list,” and inquired about his travels to South America. The officials brought a copy of the book with them to his parent’s residence, but said he couldn’t have it.

Ultimately, the student chose to travel to an FBI office about an hour from the university to further defend himself. The student is currently finishing his paper, and it is unknown at this point if the Department of Homeland Security plans to take action against him. Several calls to the department on Monday went unreturned.

-The South Coast Today, which published the original story, has an update posted today. The upshot is that the student allegedly filed his ILL request not at UMass-Dartmouth, but at UMass-Amherst. Amherst does in fact own the 1966 Peking edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, but their copy is currently missing (cue conspiracy theorists). UMass-Amherst has said that they can't comment due to the strictures imposed by the Patriot Act.

-The left-wing Progressive has a piece in which one of the two professors vouches for the student's credibility and now says that the agency in question "may" have been the FBI.

-UMass-Darmouth has released a statement confirming that their library was in no way involved in any part of this process.

-In commenting on my previous post, "Brian" says that:

I've also been told from sources in the field that Williams is considered a conservative, so the "student dupes leftist professor" angle just isn't washing.

Looking back on my previous post, I was probably a little too snarky in tone, and the new information that's come to light answers a couple questions. If events unfolded just as the student has claimed, then this is a serious breach of the right of privacy, one that I wholeheartedly condemn. However, I remain deeply skeptical of this story, for the following reasons:

-Was it DHS or the FBI that conducted the alleged interview? If it was DHS, which component agency were the agents from, and why did the student go to the FBI to protest his innocence instead of to the agency that questioned him? Is there any record of his having visited the FBI office? In addition, a DHS spokesperson pointed out in today's South Coast Times piece that DHS is not an investigative agency: it is the FBI that handles counterterrorism field investigations. Finally, how would DHS have been able, legally and technologically, to obtain copies of the student's library transactions? After all, only the FBI and Department of Justice can request records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the so-called "library section".

-If it was the FBI, this makes the story somewhat more plausible, but still raises plenty of questions. How did the agents allegedly obtain a record of the student's ILL request, especially since he didn't file it at his own institution? How did they get the book, and why wouldn't they allow the student to have it?

-I stand by my analysis of the legal, bureaucratic, political, and technical impediments to any sort of "watch list" of books or ILL monitoring system.

-I especially want to reiterate the point that the 1966 Peking edition of Quotations is available at nearly 400 libraries in the U.S., including 14 other libraries in Massachusetts besides Amherst. As commenters at other sites have noted, it can also be found on the web. How could federal authorities possibly think they could prevent someone from obtaining access to it?

-The student's pattern of travel to South America was a major factor in the alleged interview. This makes me wonder if the whole book question isn't just a side issue at best. If such a visit did occur, it may have had nothing to do with Quotations.

-Finally, the question that most puzzles me is this: Assuming that federal agents did track down this student as a result of a super-secret program for monitoring library transactions, why would they be stupid enough to tell the object of their investigation about it?

In the absence of additional details and supporting evidence, this story simply has far too many logical gaps and inconsistencies for me to accept as credible.


Blogger Mari said...

How could federal authorities possibly think they could prevent someone from obtaining access to it?

I work for the government and let's say some of my co-workers aren't always the brightest blubs when it comes to certain things outside their own area of expertise.

9:38 PM  

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