Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Libertarian backs down the FBI

An e-mail threat that prompted the evacuation of more than a dozen Brandeis University buildings on January 18 led to an unusual standoff in a public library in Newton, Mass., a few miles from the Brandeis campus.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents tried to seize 30 of the library's computers without a warrant, saying someone had used the library's Internet connection to send the threat to Brandeis. But the library director, Kathy Glick-Weil, told the agents they could not take the machines unless they got a warrant first. Newton's mayor, David Cohen, backed Ms. Glick-Weil up.

After a brief standoff, FBI officials relented and sought a warrant from a judge. Meanwhile, Ms. Glick-Weil allowed an FBI computer-forensics examiner to work with information-technology specialists at the library to narrow down which computers might have been used to send the threatening message. They determined that three computers were implicated in the alleged crime.

Late that evening, the FBI received a warrant to cart away the three computers. According to Mayor Cohen, the warrant allows the FBI to view only the threatening e-mail message and the messages sent immediately before and after that message.

Mr. Cohen said in an interview on Monday that he and Ms. Glick-Weil demanded the warrant because the FBI agents did not indicate that anyone at Brandeis faced a "clear and present danger." If there had been such a danger, Mr. Cohen added, agents probably would have seized the computers without even asking for them.

"We were able to both protect public safety and also protect the rights of people, the sense of privacy of many, many innocent users of the computers," he said. "Had we given them the computers, they would have gotten to see e-mails from ordinary citizens doing ordinary things and would not have preserved privacy."

About a half hour before FBI agents arrived at the library, Mr. Cohen had received a call from the U.S. attorney's office in Boston saying that Brandeis had received a credible threat, and that it had come from a computer in a Newton library. Newton and Waltham, where Brandeis is located, are suburbs of Boston.

Ms. Glick-Weil was not available for comment Monday.

Dennis Nealon, a spokesman for Brandeis, declined to disclose details about the e-mail message other than to say that it warned of an impending terrorist attack against the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. The message was sent to the university's office of public safety that day at about 11 a.m.

Local police and FBI agents came to the campus, said Mr. Nealon, and advised the university to evacuate the Heller building and 12 surrounding structures. The buildings, along with a local elementary school, remained empty for six-and-a-half hours.

"Since September 11th, the university's response is to take something like this very seriously," Mr. Nealon said, "and go above and beyond to make sure that there is no threat to anybody on campus."

Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokesman for the FBI's Boston branch, declined to talk about the investigation into who sent the e-mail message.

But she said the FBI had a right to seize the computers because the agents who went to the Newton library thought Brandeis students, professors, and staff members were in immediate danger. "We could have done this," said Ms. Marcinkiewicz. "It is supported by case law."

Nonetheless, she said, the FBI decided to seek a warrant. By the time agents had determined that they needed to seize only three of the computers, about 5 p.m., they realized that people at Brandeis were not about to be killed, she added.

Michael J. Sullivan, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, also said in an interview Monday that the FBI had acted within its authority to ask for the computers without a warrant.

The event prompted talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists in Boston to lash out at Newton officials, arguing that they acted irresponsibly and could have jeopardized people's lives. But Mr. Cohen said he had also received many positive comments from people all over the country supporting his actions.

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