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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 June, 2004, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Librarian's stand against federal law

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC correspondent in Washington

US President George Bush
President Bush has strongly defended the Patriot Act
As America gears up for the presidential elections more and more attention is being focussed on the so-called USA Patriot Act, which in the wake of 9/11, gave the intelligence agencies new powers to keep watch on American citizens.

Jacky Griffin is not the sort of person you want to cross.

Large, elegant, with close cropped hair, she speaks with the confidence of youth and enormous intellect.

She has a bulky bag slung across her shoulders, bumping against her as she strides across to meet me.

It is full of books, and if anyone messes with books, they get Jacky's wrath.

"An FBI agent would not be welcome here," she says, standing in the lobby of the cavernous library in Berkeley, California. She is its director.

The Berkeley City Council, in time-honoured fashion for this counter-culture community, has decided not to obey George W Bush's Patriot Act should the FBI try to impose it here.

The law was passed in a rush after the 11 September attacks in an attempt to give intelligence agencies more anti-terror powers.

They can now check most things about your life without you knowing - including, for example, your laundry bills or pizza orders.

They could for example subpoena Jacky Griffin to release details of all the books you had checked out in recent months and from your reading habits deduce whether or not you are a threat to security.

Prison penalty

For Jacky that would be breaking her librarian's code of practice.

"All of this is secret," she says. "All the courts operate in secret.

"The subpoenas are done in secret and any librarian who is approached is not allowed to talk about it under penalty of going to jail."

With her is Linda Maio, a soft-spoken city councillor who technically is Jacky's boss.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft toured the US to drum up support for the law

"But couldn't the city stand behind you on this," she says "and defend you?"

Jacky cuts her off. "I'm not a lawyer, but my guess is that I would be rotting in jail while you and the FBI are arguing it out in court."

Since 2001, the FBI has issued thousands of special warrants to carry out surveillance and get personal records from hospitals, libraries and other institutions.

Under the Patriot Act, Jacky Griffin is even banned from telling anybody that the warrant has been issued.

Four states - Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, and more than 300 towns - have passed resolutions against it, although now, the Justice Department is looking to introduce a Patriot Act Two which would be even tougher, and George Bush says he plans to make it an election issue.

But it is quite possible a Democrat government would barely change a word of it.

"Playing catch-up"

Mary de La Rosa is a young lawyer who was working on similar legislation for Bill Clinton's National Security Council.

"The Patriot Act isn't a sea change," she says.

"It's an incremental change. A lot of the powers existed before. They're just easier to use."

"The old security laws were written before there was an internet and cell phones. So we've been playing catch-up."

"It's not the law that's the problem, it's that not enough is known about it."

Which means that if it is to be repealed, most likely it will not be the Democrat opposition leading the charge.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay
A number of anti-terror measures have been challenged in court

Nor will it be that vast swathe of the heartland, where the streets of every small town is lined with fluttering American flags.

In between Berkeley and Washington, I dropped by the town of Alliance, Nebraska, with a population of about 10,000 people.

"We all support the Patriot Act here," said Wally Baird, the city manager.

"And we watch out for any strangers coming into town too."

As he was speaking a young woman in jeans and denim jacket, her hair tied decisively back, got out her four wheel drive and came across.

"I think it's right," she said. "Terrorism has gone too far overboard and I will give up some of my freedoms to know that I am safe."

The City Hall in Berkeley is named after the black rights activist Martin Luther King.

The snack bar at the nearby University of California is called the Freedom of Speech Movement Cafe with its walls covered in huge black and white photographs of civil rights campaigns.

The university believes that activist movements are created when Congress and the Supreme Court fail to do their jobs of keeping the White House in check.

Dangerous times

The Patriot Act is an example.

"This is much more dangerous than the other periods," says Robert Schechtman, a 35-year-old student of German studies, who was instrumental in passing the University's resolution against the law.

"One of the early things Hitler did was to create a separate court system that was responsible only to him.

You can't speak openly on the street anymore. I tell you, everyone is afraid.
Brooklyn immigration lawyer Ihab Tabir

"And with the Patriot Act and the military tribunals we have a separate legal system in the United States which completely goes around the checks and balances that our system of government was founded on."

A few days later I ended up in the Arab quarter of Brooklyn, where stories are plentiful about harassment of the Arab-Muslim community.

The talk is not only about Guantanamo Bay, but also about young men disappearing for weeks on end, forced deportations, being hauled in for questioning for speaking out of line.

They talk in detail about Section 215 - the bit which deals with personal records, and of the Metropolitan Corrections Facility on the corner of 29th Street and Third Avenue, where people are held without trial and access to lawyers.

"I don't know what's happening to this country," said Ihab Tabir, a Brooklyn immigration lawyer who is originally from Jordan.

"If you say anything against what is happening in Iraq for example, you can be arrested.

"You can't speak openly on the street anymore. I tell you, everyone is afraid."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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