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Gerald McEntee Headshot

Bush Does Read... Over Your Shoulder

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One of the most salient criticisms of George W. Bush--the president who once said that he doesn't read newspapers because his advisers offer a more objective account of reality--is that he lives in a bubble.

Weary of scientists, academics and intellectuals since his days as an Ivy League legacy admission struggling to pull a "C" average, Bush has filled the West Wing with a compliant clique of sycophants eager to reinforce his simplistic world view.

Because the president values loyalty above all else, and rewards only those who tell him what he wants to hear, he is able to cling to certain preposterous fallacies: The Iraq War is winnable. The surge is working. Tax cuts for the rich will create a rising tide that lifts all boats. Global warming is tree-hugging fiction.

Clearly, listening to the likes of Cheney, Rove and Gonzales has sent Bush on a one-way trip to Delusionville.

Perhaps the president would be better advised to start keeping the counsel of the one person in the White House who still has the trust and respect of the American people.

I'm talking about Laura Bush.

We know she reads newspapers. Books, too. And on one issue particularly close to her heart, I am willing to bet the First Lady has some interesting insights that the president would be well-served to heed: how to treat library professionals with the respect they deserve.

I wonder what the president's wife--a former public librarian in Houston and school librarian in Austin--thinks about an administration that treats her contemporaries with such disrespect that they can be criminally prosecuted for speaking up about it.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Connecticut librarian George Christian, who told the senators about the kinds of Orwellian abuses that are being perpetrated by the Justice Department against librarians and their patrons.

When the USA Patriot Act was first introduced in Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft mocked librarians as "hysterical" for voicing their concerns about potential violations of reader confidentiality. But as it turns out, they had every reason to worry.

Under a Patriot Act provision that you may not have heard about, Congress granted the FBI sweeping surveillance powers to seize library records and spy on the reading habits of ordinary Americans without prior court approval. In the name of fighting terrorism, federal agents have been given wide discretion to bypass judicial review and circumvent the standards usually required to get a warrant, under the ludicrous notion that Americans will somehow be safer if the government knows what we're reading.

The Patriot Act's "National Security Letter" (NSL) powers have flown under the public radar because all recipients of such letters are under an automatic governmental gag order to never speak of it. The criminal penalty for revealing to anyone that you've been subjected to a covert NSL records subpoena: up to one year in prison.

Shielding governmental treachery by criminalizing dissent is a classic tactic of despots and dictators used throughout history. And sadly, here in our democracy, it has helped shield from scrutiny egregious governmental overreaching.

Between 2003 and 2005, the government issued a staggering 143,000 NSLs. By contrast, only 8,500 NSLs were issued in 2000 prior to the Patriot Act's passage.

These numbers help explain why Christian has become something of a folk hero among his peers. The executive director of a Hartford-area library consortium, Christian is one of four "John Doe" librarians who took the government to court to challenge an NSL gag order--and won.

The lifting of the gag order was a rare civil liberties victory during the Bush presidency. But in terms of influencing federal law, it was too little, too late. The administration dropped its federal appeal of the ruling, but only after the conclusion of last year's Patriot Act reauthorization debate on Capitol Hill in which Congress voted to make the gag order rule even stricter.

Christian told the senators he would have liked to have been a part of the debate. His experience with the FBI, he testified, "should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution."

The heroic actions of Christian merit special attention this week as we celebrate National Library Week and honor the role of libraries in transforming communities, nurturing intellectual freedom and promoting opportunity for all.

As president of the country's largest union for library workers, I am especially proud that a longtime AFSCME member, author and librarian Susan Patron of the Los Angeles Public Library, recently won the prestigious John Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children's literature, for her book, "The Higher Power of Lucky." Achievements like Patron's should be the focus of today's National Library Workers Day celebration. Instead, we are forced to focus on fighting Big Brother and stressing the seriousness with which librarians take their responsibility to safeguard their patrons' privacy.

"Spying on people in the library is like spying on them in the voting booth," Christian told the Senate last week. "Libraries were and should remain pillars of our democracy, institutions where citizens can come to explore their concerns, confident that they can find information on all sides of controversial issues and confident that their explorations will remain personal and private."

It's a message our president needs to hear. Maybe it's time for our First Librarian to burst her husband's bubble and tell him what's really going on in America's libraries.

That is, unless she's under a gag order, too.