By PETE YOST
The Bush administration is often accused of an obsession with secrecy, and critics say the case of the Justice Department versus Connecticut librarians proves their point.
Documents once kept secret in a now closed terrorism inquiry reveal that government lawyers kept secret a newspaper article and several references to Supreme Court opinions that undercut government arguments for secrecy.
The documents were placed on the public record Thursday on orders from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Ann Beeson says the documents show the government engaging in "a clear case of overcensoring" during the yearlong dispute on the FBI’s request for subscriber and billing information from a library computer used in a 45-minute span on Feb. 15, 2005.
Four librarians resisted the FBI directive. They were put under a gag order that prohibited them from even acknowledging the existence of the demand for information, which came in the form of a national security letter rather than a subpoena signed by a judge. Such a letter allows the executive branch of government to obtain records about people in terrorism and espionage investigations without a judge’s approval or a grand jury subpoena.
The FBI said the government had sound legal reasons for the secrecy and that under other circumstances the librarians’ refusal to cooperate could have increased the danger of terrorists succeeding.
The newly released records showed that the government deleted references in a court decision to the fact that The New York Times had already ascertained and published the name of the library group challenging the FBI. The government had kept a copy of the Times article under seal in the case.
Another document was a Supreme Court opinion written in October 2005 in which Ginsburg pointed out that the library group already had been identified publicly. "That cat was inadvertently let out of the bag," she wrote. The government kept the quote secret.
Also among the fresh disclosures was a previously excised section of an opinion by U.S. District Judge Janet Hall in Connecticut rejecting the government’s demand for secrecy about the name of the plaintiff, the Library Connection.
Describing how irrelevant it was to national security that the name of the group would get out publicly, Hall had written that "the universe of people who could be the subject of this investigation would likely be in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands."
The Library Connection, which fought the government’s request for information, is a network of 26 Connecticut public and private libraries serving more than 288,000 library cardholders, along with others who do not hold cards.
Ginsburg’s action opens the way for release of more material from the case by the federal court in Connecticut and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.