In the rising resistance against John Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act and subsequent executive orders revising sections of the Bill of Rights, the attorney general has been particularly irritated by the attention the media are paying to the many librarians around the country who are expunging the records of borrowed books as soon as they are returned—in protest against Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
A provision of the section allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to bring a list of suspect books to librar-ies to find out who’s been reading them. The FBI gets a court order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, before which only a government attorney appears.
All that the FISA court requires is a declaration from the attorney general that the search is “relevant” to an investigation of terrorism. Nothing further—no probable cause or even reasonable suspicion that any of the readers caught in this dragnet have anything to do with terrorism. And once the FBI comes, a gag order prevents librarians from telling anyone, including the press, that the visit has taken place.
The attorney general has said—attempting to quell the furor—that Section 215 has not yet been used against libraries. But he was careful not to say it would never be used, and there have been FBI visits to libraries, but the gag rule prevents details being made public.
These rebellious librarians are acting in accordance with the American Library Association’s (ALA) credo that affirms its support of Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Moreover, ALA Policy 58.1 (2) supports “human rights and intellectual freedom worldwide.”
Yet, at its January midwinter meeting in San Diego, the Governing Council of ALA overwhelmingly rejected an amendment by one of its members, Karen Schneider, calling for the immediate release of the ten librarians among the seventy-five prisoners of conscience—as designated by Amnesty International—who were imprisoned by Fidel Castro in the spring of 2003. Among the journalists, labor organizers, medical doctors, and human rights workers locked away for sentences of twenty years or more were these independent librarians.
Because Schneider’s resolution focused on the librarians among the free-speech dissidents, as she accurately calls them, all the majority of the Council could bring themselves to do was to express “deep concern” for the prisoners, without even mentioning the librarians. There are members of the Council, admirers of Fidel, who charged that these dissidents are part of the Bush administration plot to bring about “regime change” in Cuba.
Amnesty International calls all of the seventy-five in the gulag prisoners of conscience. Christine Chanet, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, says she “has received particularly alarming information about the conditions of detention of these people.” Twenty of them are suffering from hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments. They have received little or no medical attention. (The International Red Cross has been barred from Castro’s prisons since 1989.)
Because I have joined a growing number of American librarians who strongly disagree with the Governing Council’s disinclination to offend the Cuban dictator, I have been targeted by Eliades Acosta, director of Cuba’s National Library (Biblioteca Nacional). Expressing his pleasure at the Council’s defeat of Karen Schneider’s amendment, and bristling at my support of it, Acosta asked accusingly, “What does Mr. Hentoff know of the real Cuba?”
My answer to him: “I know that if I were a Cuban, I’d be in prison.”
As for the pro-democracy Cubans who have set up these libraries in their homes—including such publications forbidden in the official libraries as the International Declaration of Human Rights and works by George Orwell—the importance of the home libraries was emphasized in an August 2001 report by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in the Hague, an organization usually lauded by the American Library Association.
Susanne Seidel, director of the IFLA’s Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression Office, wrote about “Free Access to Information in Cuba,” after a visit there:
There is no doubt that a wide range of information or literature . . . is unavailable in the (official) libraries of Cuba. Even when publications are held, their use may be restricted or monitored to the extent that ordinary people may be inhibited or even prevented from gaining access to them. It can be argued that the fast growing number of independent libraries indicates the existence of an information gap and that they help by supplying a need that otherwise cannot be filled by [official public libraries]. [Empha sis added.]
Castro has the power, obviously, to continually expand that information gap by jailing more independent librarians. After Castro himself was imprisoned by the previous dictator of Cuba, however, he wrote about that instructive experience:
In prison, there were no rifles for training, no stone fortresses from which to shoot. Behind those walls, our rifles were books. And through study, stone by stone we built our fortress, the only one that is invincible: the fortress of ideas.
Nonviolently, the independent librarians also have been committed to making available to Cubans the invincible fortress of ideas. One of them is the widely respected journalist and poet Raúl Rivero, who is in very poor health in his cell. His wife, Blanca Reyes, who has refused to be silenced, says, “What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade.”
I hope that believers in the freedom to read, when they go to our libraries, will ask the librarians which side they are on—that of the governing ALA Council or of the independent librarians in cells three feet wide and six feet long.
American librarians, vigorously protesting the Patriot Act, have not yet been imprisoned by John Ashcroft.
And one free spirit among them, Karen Schneider—whose defeated amendment to free the Cuban librarians has become internationally known among human rights workers—has started a Web site: www.freadom.info. Along with other free-expression librarians and supporters, she is asking anyone who clicks on to send e-mails to Castro, Amnesty International, and Jimmy Carter (who spoke for freedom to read and speak when he was in Cuba before the crackdown). The message is “for the immediate release of the librarians . . . and until their release, for an improvement in their prison conditions.” Freadom.info will continue to focus on other crises or specific events related to the freedom to read.
Letters and other messages to Castro have resulted in the release of independent Cuban librarian Julio Antonio Valdes, seriously ill with advanced kidney disease. The source of that emergency appeal was another Website, www.friendsofcubanlibraries.org. Valdes was also declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International—though not by ALA’s Governing Council.
Nat Hentoff is a regular columnist for the Village Voice and the Washington Times, a United Media syndicated columnist, and the author of Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2003).