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Context of 'April 11, 2007: ’Connecticut Four’ Plaintiff Testifies to Senate'

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The FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut receives an e-mail that looks like a terrorist threat. The agents there follow the normal routine: they ask the service provider, a group of Connecticut public libraries, for the real name, street address, and Internet logs of the sender. The agents have no search warrant, grand jury subpoena, or court order. What they do have is a National Security Letter (NSL) that describes the records needed. According to the expanded USA Patriot Act, the NSL is all the FBI needs, and the NSL statute bars the librarians from disclosing the request to anyone. The librarians will refuse to hand over the information, and will file a federal lawsuit challenging the NSL as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (see July 13, 2005). The e-mailed threat will turn out to be a hoax. Kevin O’Connor, the US attorney in Connecticut, later says the FBI suspected that the threat was a hoax from the outset, but believed they had an “obligation” to pursue it. “We weren’t tying up librarians or reading through books,” he will say. “All we wanted was identifying information. God forbid it isn’t a hoax.” The librarians who challenge the NSL, however, feel differently. George Christian, the point man in the librarians’ legal challenge, will say, “The idea that the government can secretly investigate what the public is informing itself about is chilling.” A judge will strike down the NSL gag order, allowing Christian and his three colleagues (by now dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media) to disclose the fact that they had received an NSL, with a judge calling the NSL gag order “antithetical to democratic concepts”. In April 2006, the government will drop its NSL request (see August 2005-May 2006). Christian will be unmollified. “The fact that I can speak now is a little like being permitted to call the Fire Department only after a building has burned to the ground,” he will say. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Connecticut Four, American Civil Liberties Union, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Connor, National Security Letters, USA Patriot Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

George Christian.George Christian. [Source: PBS]Librarian and data manager George Christian is served with a so-called “National Security Letter” (NSL) from the FBI demanding that his firm turn over private information on its patrons because of an apparent terrorist threat e-mailed from one of his libraries (see February 2005). Christian is the executive director of Library Connection, Inc., which manages catalog information, patron records, and circulation information for 27 libraries in and around Hartford, Connecticut, as well as providing telecommunications services to many of its member libraries. Christian is given the NSL, as well as a gag order preventing them from ever mentioning their receipt of the letter, or any details surrounding it. Christian is notified of the letter five days before actually receiving it; he spends those days frantically learning more about NSLs and the laws surrounding them (see October 25, 2005). He learns that a district court in New York had found the entire NSL statute unconstitutional because of what Christian calls “prima facie violations of the 1st, 4th and 5th amendments.” By the time they receive the letter, he has decided to oppose it. The letter, delivered by two FBI agents, orders Christian and Library Connection to turn over information about a specific IP address registered to the firm. One of the agents warns Christian that the gag order prohibits anyone in the firm from telling anyone that the FBI is attempting to secure information from its library business records. Christian, who will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSL in April 2007 (see April 11, 2007), says neither he nor his colleagues could “fathom any ‘exigent’ nature for the FBI request.” The letter was dated May 19, nearly two months before its delivery, was not addressed to Christian, and requested information from the use of the IP address five months earlier, February 15. Christian later says that while he and his colleagues want to assist the FBI in any way they can, and have no desire to “impede the investigation of a perilous situation that endanger[s] my country or my fellow citizens,” because of the date of the letter and the IP usage, they conclude that the FBI has not been in any rush to get the information. Christian tells the FBI agents that he believes the use of NSLs is unconstitutional and that he will consult his attorney. Library Connection’s attorney says that the only way to contest compliance with an NSL is to take the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, to court. Christian is understandably reluctant to involve his firm in such a court challenge without authorization, and takes the case to the Executive Committee of the firm’s board of directors. The three members, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek (who will soon be dubbed the “Connecticut Four” by the media), after conferring with the attorney and reviewing the New York court’s decision against NSLs, decide to go forward with the complaint. They secure representation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Together, they decide to ask for relief from the NSL, to seek a broader ruling that the use of NSLs is unconstitutional, and to have the gag order lifted so they can publicly discuss the incident as “part of the national debate over renewal of the Patriot Act” (see March 9, 2006). Christian will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We… felt we were defending our democracy by insisting that the checks and balances established in the Constitution be observed. We had no court order, and there was no evidence that an independent judge had examined the FBI’s evidence and found there to be probable cause justifying their request for information.… [W]e did not want to aid terrorists or criminals.… But we did not feel we would be helping the country or making anyone safer by throwing out the Constitution either.” Because of the way the computer system is set up, to give the FBI the information about the specific IP address and usage it required, Christian would have to give the FBI information about everyone using every computer in the particular library on the day in question. He later says, “[S]ince there was no way of determining who was using the computers in the library five months after the fact, we felt that [the FBI wanted] information we had on all the patrons of that library. That seemed like a rather sweeping request. Some would call it a fishing expedition.” The case goes to trial in August 2005 (see August 2005-May 2006). [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] It is later learned that the original e-mailed threat is a hoax. [USA Today, 7/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, National Security Letters, Senate Judiciary Committee, Library Connection, Inc., Barbara Bailey, George Christian, American Civil Liberties Union, Janet Nocek, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Connecticut Four

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey.The Connecticut Four, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey. [Source: Robert Deutsch/ USA Today]A case filed against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by four plaintiffs from Connecticut’s Library Connection, Inc.—George Christian, Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek—goes to trial in federal district court (see July 13, 2005). The trial is filed as Doe v. Gonzales because the government has filed a gag order against the plaintiffs forbidding them from identifying themselves or discussing the case publicly. The case involves a demand for information from the FBI for information concerning library usage by patrons of a Connecticut library; the four plaintiffs, on behalf of their data management firm Library Connection, have refused. The case revolves around the use of a National Security Letter (NSL) by the FBI; the plaintiffs, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, want the NSL voided, the gag order lifted, and such use of NSLs found unconstitutional. Christian and his three colleagues are not allowed to attend the hearings in person because of the possibility that they might be identified as the plaintiffs; they are forced to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit broadcast from a locked room in the Hartford courthouse. When the judge in the proceeding asks to review the government’s evidence for keeping the gag rule in place, Justice Department lawyers insist on submitting secret evidence directly to the judge, without providing that evidence to the plaintiff’s lawyers. The judge is not pleased, and rules, as did her predecessor in New York, that a perpetual gag order amounts to prior restraint, and thereby is unconstitutional. She adds that her review of the secret evidence gives no national security rationale for keeping the plaintiffs gagged. The Justice Department immediately appeals the ruling, and the plaintiffs stay silent and gagged. While the four plaintiffs remain silent about the NSL and the court case, the Justice Department’s primary lawyer, Kevin O’Conner, does not: O’Conner has frequently debated one of the plaintiffs, Chase, about the Patriot Act, and though Chase is now required to remain silent, O’Conner continues to make frequent public appearances touting the Patriot Act. Christian later says, in 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (see April 11, 2007), that the continuing gag order causes the four “John Does” considerable professional and personal distress, especially after the national media begins reporting the story. The media eventually learns, through the careless redaction of information by government lawyers, of Chase’s identity as one of the four plaintiffs, and reveals that Library Connection is the firm involved in the lawsuit. Christian’s name comes to light shortly thereafter. The attorneys warn Christian and the others that even though their identities and their firm have been revealed, they still cannot comment at all on the case. Christian, for one, wants to testify before Congress in regards to the upcoming reauthorization of the Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006), but cannot. The four plaintiffs quickly become known in the media as the “Connecticut John Does” or the “Connecticut Four.”
Appeals Court - In November 2005, a New York court of appeals hears the case. Christian and his colleagues are allowed to be present at the case this time, but are required to conceal their identities by entering and leaving the court building separately, are not allowed to sit together, and are not allowed to confer with, or even make eye contact with, each other or their attorneys. The Justice Department lawyers argue that even revealing themselves as recipients of a NSL would violate national security, an argument refuted by submission of the raft of news articles identifying Christian, Chase, and Library Connection. The government argues that those news reports don’t matter because no one in Connecticut reads the primary newspaper carrying the story, the New York Times, and that surveys prove that most people don’t believe what they read in the news anyway. The Justice Department also tries to get the news articles to be kept under seal in court papers. Christian characterizes the entire proceeding as “absurd.” The court refuses to admit the plaintiff’s claim that 48 states, including Connecticut, have laws protecting the privacy of library patrons, but does admit into evidence the claims by Gonzales that there is no statutory justification for claims of privacy. In an attempt to get the gag order lifted before the Patriot Act reauthorization, the plaintiff’s attorneys make an emergency appeal directly to the Supreme Court, but are rebuffed. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007] In June 2006, Nocek tells a reporter, “Imagine the government came to you with an order demanding that you compromise your professional and personal principles. Imagine then being permanently gagged from speaking to your friends, your family or your colleagues about this wrenching experience.… Under the Patriot Act, the FBI demanded Internet and library records without showing any evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing to a court of law. We were barred from speaking to anyone about the matter and we were even taking a risk by consulting with lawyers.” [Interview: George Christian, 6/2/2006]
Gag Order Lifted, Case Dropped - Weeks after President Bush signs into law the Patriot Act reauthorization (see March 9, 2006), the FBI voluntarily lifts the gag order without waiting for a court order. The agency then tries to get the original ruling against the gag order vacated, an attempt that the appeals court refuses. The appellate judges are clearly disturbed by the breadth of the NSL gag provisions; one appellate judge writes, “A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens… Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence.” The appeals court refers the case back to district court, allowing the original opinion to stand. Weeks later, the FBI withdraws its NSL, saying that it no longer needs the information it originally requested. Christian later testifies, “In doing so, they removed the Patriot Act from the danger of court review.” Christian later says that he believes the entire procedure was managed as an attempt to prevent the case from becoming public knowledge before Congress could vote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: Peter Chase, Senate Judiciary Committee, National Security Letters, US Department of Justice, Library Connection, Inc., George Christian, George W. Bush, American Civil Liberties Union, Barbara Bailey, Connecticut Four, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kevin O’Conner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush signs Executive Order 13388, which dramatically expands the powers of the US government to monitor and collect data on US citizens. [Executive Order 13388 of October 25, 2005, 10/25/2005] The order augments the power of “National Security Letters,” authorized in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan (see December 4, 1981), but rarely used against US citizens until the advent of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act. Thanks to the order, the data files are even more accessible to what the order calls “state, local, and tribal” governments as well as the undefined “appropriate private sector entities,” presumably private data-mining corporations that collect personal and financial data on US citizens for the government.
Over 30,000 NSLs a Year - The FBI now issues over 30,000 NSLs a year, a hundredfold increase from earlier administration usages. NSLs are issued by FBI field supervisors at their discretion without court warrant or oversight by the judiciary or Congress. NSLs force their recipients—librarians, booksellers, employers, Internet providers, and others—to turn over any and all personal data on their customers and employees and are legally required not to tell the targets of the investigations about the letters or the data collection. An FBI supervisor can, without oversight or reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, collect data on what a citizen makes, spends, invests, gambles, reads in books and on the Internet, buys online, and with whom that citizen lives, works, associates, telephones, and exchanges e-mails. Senior FBI officials admit that the huge spike in NSLs stems from the FBI’s new authority to collect tremendous amounts of data on US citizens not accused of criminal activities. And NSLs are now used to generate leads against terrorist suspects and not merely pursue them.
NSLs Handled With Discretion, Officials Insist - FBI and White House officials insist that NSLs are handled with discretion and with a recognizance of Americans’ right to privacy. Joseph Billy Jr, the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, says he understand that “merely being in a government or FBI database… gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” But innocent Americans “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.” [Washington Post, 11/6/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), USA Patriot Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Letters, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush signs the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 into law. The bill, which extends and modifies the original USA Patriot Act (see October 26, 2001), was driven through Congress primarily by the Republican majorities in both Houses. However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cosponsored the Senate bill, numerous Democrats in both Houses voted with the Republicans in favor of the bill, and the final bill sailed through the Senate by an 89-10 vote on March 2. [GovTrack, 3/9/2006; Library of Congress, 3/9/2006] In the signing ceremony, Bush calls the Reauthorization Act “a really important piece of legislation… that’s vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people.” He repeatedly evokes the 9/11 attacks as a reason why the new law is needed. [Government Printing Office, 3/9/2006]
Provisions for Oversight Added - One of the reasons why the reauthorization bill received such support from Congressional moderates on both sides of the aisle is because Congress added numerous provisions for judicial and Congressional oversight of how government and law enforcement agencies conduct investigations, especially against US citizens. Representative Butch Otter (R-ID) said in 2004 that Congress came “a long way in two years, and we’ve really brought an awareness to the Patriot Act and its overreaches that we gave to law enforcement.” He adds, “We’ve also quieted any idea of Patriot II, even though they snuck some of Patriot II in on the intelligence bill” (see February 7, 2003). [Associated Press, 1/23/2004]
Opposition From Both Sides - Liberal and conservative organizations joined together in unprecedented cooperation to oppose several key provisions of the original reauthorization and expansion of the Patriot Act, including easing of restrictions on government and law enforcement agencies in obtaining financial records of individuals and businesses, “sneak-and-peek” searches without court warrants or the target’s knowledge, and its “overbroad” definition of the term “terrorist.” Additionally, lawmakers in Congress insisted on expiration dates for the various surveillance and wiretapping methodologies employed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies (see Early 2002). [Associated Press, 5/23/2005] The final bill mandates that anyone subpoenaed for information regarding terrorist investigations has the right to challenge the requirement that they not reveal anything about the subpoena, those recipients will not be required to tell the FBI the name of their lawyer, and libraries that are not Internet service providers will not be subject to demands from “national security letters” for information about their patrons. Many of the bill’s provisions will expire in four years. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/3/2006]
Reauthorizing Original Provisions - The bill does reauthorize many expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain “tangible items,” such as business records from libraries and bookstores, in connection with foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. Port security provisions are strengthened, and restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine that can be used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine are imposed, forcing individuals to register their purchases of such medicines and limiting the amounts they can buy. [CBS News, 3/9/2006]
Bush Signing Statement Says He Will Ignore Oversight Mandates - But when he signs the bill into law, Bush also issues a signing statement that says he has no intention of obeying mandates that enjoin the White House and the Justice Department to inform Congress about how the FBI is using its new powers under the bill. Bush writes that he is not bound to tell Congress how the new Patriot Act powers are being used, and in spite of what the law requires, he can and will withhold information if he decides that such disclosure may “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.” [Statement on Signing the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, 3/9/2006; Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says that Bush’s assertion that he can ignore provisions of the law as he pleases, under the so-called “unitary executive” theory, are “nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law.” Law professor David Golove says the statement is illustrative of the Bush administration’s “mind-bogglingly expansive conception” of executive power, and its low regard for legislative power. [Boston Globe, 3/24/2006] Author and legal expert Jennifer Van Bergen warns of Bush using this signing statement to avoid accountability about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, writing: “[I]t is becoming clearer every day that Bush has no qualms about violating either international laws and obligations or domestic laws. The recent revelations about the secret NSA domestic surveillance program revealed Bush flagrantly violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which was specifically enacted to prevent unchecked executive branch surveillance. … His signing statements, thus, are nothing short of an attempt to change the very face of our government and our country.” [Institute for Public Accuracy, 3/27/2006]
Request to Rescind Signing Statement - In late March, Democratic House members Jane Harman and John Conyers will write to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting that the administration rescind the signing statement, writing: “As you know, ‘signing statements’ do not have the force of law. Legislation passed by both Houses and signed by the president does. As Article 1, Section 7, of the Constitution states: ‘Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it.’” Bush and Gonzales will ignore the request. [US House of Representatives, 3/29/2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, David Golove, Alberto R. Gonzales, Butch Otter, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick J. Leahy, USA Patriot Act, John Conyers, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jennifer Van Bergen, Jane Harman, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

George Christian, a Connecticut librarian and data manager who fought a National Security Letter from the FBI demanding information about his library’s patrons (see July 13, 2005 and August 2005-May 2006), testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Christian, who along with his three fellow plaintiffs, has repeatedly spoken about what he considers the Justice Department’s egregrous abuse of power and its invasion of privacy, and his opposition to the USA Patriot Act, which has given the FBI the ability to not only demand private information from libraries about their patrons, but require those librarians to keep quiet about the request. Though the court battle restored Christian’s ability to speak publicly about his encounter with the FBI, he testifies, “We feel an obligation to the tens of thousands of others who received National Security Letters and now will live under a gag order for the rest of their lives.” He tells the committee, “Our saga should raise a big patriotic American flag of caution about how our civil liberties are being sorely tested by law enforcement abuses of national security letters. The questions raised vindicate the concerns that the library community and others have had for over five years about the broad powers expanded under the USA Patriot Act.… We believe changes can be made that conform to the rule of law, do not sacrifice law enforcement’s abilities to pursue terrorists ,yet maintain civil liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution.” Libraries “should remain pillars of democracy, institutions where citizens could come to explore their concerns, confident that they could find information on all sides of controversial issues and confident that their explorations would remain personal and private.” He quotes one of his fellow plaintiffs: “[S]pying on people in the library is like spying on them in the voting booth.” Christian also says that while many believe that library records are now protected by the revised Patriot Act, in fact, they are not. He says that “a loophole inserted into the wording allows the FBI to use a national security letter to obtain library records anyway.” He notes that FBI director Robert Mueller has admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the new language “did not actually change the law.” Similarly, the revised Patriot Act still gives the government the power to impose near-unlimited gag orders on NSL recipients—though the new law seems to give recipients the ability to challenge such gag orders, the law says that if the government declares that lifting such a gag order would “harm national security,” the court must accept that assertion and refuse to lift the order. “Hence, there is no prior judicial review to approve an NSL and, with rare exception, no legal way to challenge an NSL after the fact,” Christian testifies. “It is the secrecy surrounding the issuance of NSLs that permits their misuse. Because of the fact that all recipients of NSLs are perpetually gagged, no one knew the FBI was issuing so many. No one knew there was no public examination of the practice. No one could ask if over 143,000 National Security Letters in two years are necessary.… Secrecy that prevents oversight and public debate is a danger to a free and open society.” [Senate Judiciary Committee, 4/11/2007]

Entity Tags: National Security Letters, Federal Bureau of Investigation, George Christian, John Ashcroft, USA Patriot Act, Robert S. Mueller III, Senate Judiciary Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress.Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress. [Source: Associated Press]Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lied to Congress during Congressional hearings over the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006). In testimony before Congress, Gonzales asserted that he knew nothing of any abuses of National Security Letters (NSLs), documents that require employers, librarians, and others to turn over information on their employees and patrons to the government, and further require that those served with NSLs remain silent about them and the information being given over. But internal FBI documents made available on this day reveal that Gonzales indeed had been briefed about such abuses. (The Justice Department is fighting two court cases from plaintiffs seeking to halt the indiscriminate and allegedly unconstitutional use of NSLs to demand information about US citizens that, by law, should remain private.) George Christian, a Connecticut librarian who fought the FBI over its demand for information about his library patrons (see July 13, 2005 and April 11, 2007), says, “Having experienced first-hand the impact of the government’s abuse of surveillance powers, it is particularly disheartening to learn more and more about the deceit surrounding that abuse. I and my colleagues were fortunate enough to have the gag order against us lifted, but thousands more believed to have received national security letters are not so lucky, and must suffer the injustice in silence. It’s bad enough that these abuses occur, but salt is added to the wound when the top law enforcement agent in the country knows about the abuses, does nothing to correct them, and then plays ignorant when confronted with them.” [American Civil Liberties Union, 7/10/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, George Christian, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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