Monday, December 19, 2005

Patriot Act Paranoia

This story from an obscure Massachusetts newspaper has become the latest cause celebre among librarians. The wide, uncritical acceptance this story has gained is yet another example of how the exaggerated, over the top opposition to the Patriot Act has resulted in a suspension of the critical thinking skills on which our profession prides itself:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

Let me clarify a couple points before we proceed any farther. For one thing, the official title is Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, 312 pages, published orginally in 1966. Interlibrary loan, for my non-librarian readers, is a service that allows libraries to borrow copies of books they don't own from other institutions that do have it. Anyway, let's delve further into this story:

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."

Where do I begin? One, how exactly would federal authorities monitor interlibrary loan requests? After all, according to one study, in Fiscal Year 2000 academic libraries alone filled 9.5 million ILL requests. The FBI doesn't even have a computer system capable of monitoring domestic terror threats, yet somehow the federal government can track the millions of annual ILL transactions?

Second, this story is based on the premise that the same federal government that has proven deeply reluctant to use Section 215 of the Patriot Act, somehow is willing to illegally track millions of library transactions a year. Remember just a few days ago, when the big thing on library listservs was the "radical, militant librarians" quote that has already been slated for use on t-shirts? That comment came from an FBI agent who was deeply frustrated by the unwillingness of the Justice Department to employ the provisions of Section 215. If the government is that reluctant to use the powers the law currently grants it, what makes you think they would pursue an initiative like the one described in the article? If the FBI didn't utilize Section 215 in the celebrated Whatcom County, Washington case, then why would the government use vastly greater and more controversial powers over Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book"?

This is undoubtedly the point where someone will object by pointing to the recent revelation about efforts to intercept calls involving al Qaeda operatives talking to individuals here in the U.S. Of course, this was a limited program enacted with the full awareness of Congress, the relevant courts, and the Justice Department, and it still wound up being leaked and revealed on the front page of the New York Times. Do you really think that such a blatantly illegal program as general monitoring of ILL transactions, if it existed, would not have met a similar fate?

Also, the alleged interview was conducted not by the FBI, but by Department of Homeland Security representatives. This is yet another detail that does not make sense. After all, it is the FBI, in concert with local law enforcement, that does the bulk of domestic counterterrorism field investigations. If you look at the component agencies of DHS, none of them are designed or organized to conduct field investigations except in very specific circumstances.

Professor Juan Cole, in a post entitled "The Bushist Police State and Interlibrary Loan" (link via Brian Ulrich), cites an example of DHS reacting to books that were stopped at customs. There's just one problem with using that argument here: according to the WorldCat database, nearly 400 American libraries own the 1966 Peking first edition of Mao's Quotations including 15 libraries in the state of Massachusetts. So why would the book have had to go through customs (i.e. come from outside the country), when it could readily have been obtained from inside the same state?

Back to the article:

Although The Standard-Times knows the name of the student, he is not coming forward because he fears repercussions should his name become public. He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.

In other words, as Jack Stephens has noted, this whole story is nothing but hearsay. It is understandable though. After all, if the student in question speaks out, he's sure to be bundled into a black helicopter and end up in Guantanamo.

In the real world, of course, the student would become a celebrity and get a prominent role in Michael Moore's next movie. Assuming that his story is credible.

The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.

So the DHS guys actually showed up with the book, but wouldn't even leave it? What, did they stand there saying "nyah, nyah, nyah, you can't have it"?

Also, just how did the alleged DHS guys get the book? How did they know when it arrived? Are you telling me that the library staff at UMass-Dartmouth just let the feds take the book and walk off with it? Where did UMass-Dartmouth get the ILL copy from, and has it been returned to that institution?

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.

"I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that," he said. "Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."

Mao is "completely harmless"? Try telling that to the 40 million people he killed. To be fair, though, the professor has a point. We're at war with radical Islamism; why would the government care about a 40 year old collection of quotes from a long-dead Communist despot, instead of say a book by Qutb or Mawdudi? This is yet another reason why this story makes no logical sense.

To address Dr. Williams' other point: if the government is going to investigate everyone who's ever monitored jihadist web sites, it's going to be a long time before they get to his students.

In short, there are two alternate explanations here. One, the story is true. In this case, one has to believe that the same federal government that can't keep a secret and has been reluctant to use its lawful investigative powers to the full extent possible, is somehow successfully operating a top secret program to monitor who's been reading a collection of quotes from a Communist dictator who's been dead for thirty years.

The other possibility, of course, is that, for all the reasons outlined above, this story is false. In this case, the most likely explanation is that the student was required to obtain a copy of Mao's Quotations for his research, and for whatever reason simply failed to do so. When asked by his professor why he couldn't get the book, he resorted to a postmodern, paranoid, Moorewellian variant on "the dog ate my homework": it's all the Bushitler's fault. Considering the intellectual climate in contemporary academia, this was not at all a bad approach to try.

I will leave it to the reader to determine which of these two possibilities is more plausible.


Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

I think the story as we have it is at best incomplete. If there were a pattern of behavior on the part of the student that the government regarded as suspicious, he would stand out from all the people who read such books. 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.

2:19 PM  

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