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Ashland forum discusses Patriot Act, library privacy

FBI can request library information only after obtaining a court order pertaining to a specific investigation of terrorism

More than 100 people brought their concerns about privacy in local libraries to police, politicians and Jackson County's library director Sunday afternoon.

Sponsored by the Friends of the Ashland Library, the forum's panel included Ashland police Chief Scott Fleuter, FBI Special Agent Charles Matthews, political activist and recent democratic candidate Peter Buckley and Jackson County Library Director Ronnie Lee Budge. Each answered questions and offered viewpoints on the Patriot Act and the conflict between privacy in libraries and national security.

Matthews presented an overview of the Patriot Act, outlining how the legislation brought the earlier Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act up to date with modern technology. Assembled at Ashland's Unitarian Center, the audience bombarded the Oregon FBI head with scenarios involving conditions under which his agency could investigate library patrons and Internet users.

In response to theories of random FBI monitoring, Matthews explained that the FBI can request library information only after the agency has obtained a court order pertaining to a specific investigation of terrorism.

We're not out there surfing someone else's data bases, Matthews said. We're out there investigating predicated cases.

Libraries are exempt from Oregon public records laws and make it policy not to release information on patrons, Budge said. Furthermore, much information would be difficult for a third party to access, she said.

The way it has always been is that libraries ... have very little information to give out, Budge said. Probably the FBI is going to be disappointed.

The Jackson County Library's computer system does not keep a history of every book patrons have checked out, only what items currently are on loan, she said. Internet users must sign in to use library computers, but identification is not required, and the lists are thrown away, she said.

That's probably why terrorists were using library computers in Florida, she said.

Not everyone was convinced, however, that they were safe from government surveillance in libraries.

I don't want people leaving here and being complacent that our library records are protected, said Rev. Patt Herdklotz of the Ashland Unitarian Center.

Herdklotz asked Budge to address technical aspects of the library's computer system, but Budge admitted that she was not an expert on the topic. Matthews indicated that he didn't know exactly how the FBI could retrieve records from the library's computer system.

I think (Budge) is naive, and I was sorry that someone computer-savvy wasn't here to answer for her, Herdklotz said, adding that she still was pleased with the discussion.

There isn't a net thing, and that's very reassuring.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail .