For an example of how the intangible conflict between individual liberties and national security plays out in real life, look no further than Newton. Here, in this city of less than 84,000, law-enforcement power was checked — but not hindered — by elected officials seeking to protect their citizens’ right to privacy.
Here’s how it unfolded: around 11 am on January 18, Brandeis University officials received an e-mail threat to their Waltham campus; by 2 pm, police had traced the threat to a computer in the Newton Public Library.
Around 2:10, according to mayoral spokesman Jeremy Solomon, the US Attorney’s Office called Newton mayor David Cohen, asking for permission to seize the public computers to aid in an investigation, broadly defined. They did not have a warrant, proof that a court has authorized, justified, and narrowed police actions. Let’s review: FBI agents, without a warrant, verbally requesting permission to take public computers without detailed explanation of their purpose in doing so.
Uncomfortable with the request, Cohen convened a group of advisers and attorneys, and came up with a compromise.
“I said basically we would be happy to cordon off the area to preserve the evidence,” the mayor says. “We would use our IT staff to narrow down which computers might have been used, and we would make sure that federal officials would have access to the library and be able to stay there after closing hours. But for us to release the computers into their custody, or to provide any personal identifying information, would require a warrant.”
The agents arrived at the library that afternoon. But it took until 11:30 pm for federal authorities to obtain the warrant Cohen requested, and by that time Newton’s IT workers had narrowed the suspect computers down to three (out of 27). The agents then took those three computers for analysis. No perpetrators have been apprehended so far. And Newton officials — despite reports of some disgruntled police and federal officers (the Boston Herald quoted one law-enforcement agent close to the investigation describing the situation as “a nightmare”) — say all’s well that ends well. Since the debacle, local FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz has told several reporters that had there been any imminent danger, a warrant would have been unnecessary. She and Cohen have both said that the FBI’s request had nothing to do with the USA PATRIOT Act, ostensibly created to help federal law-enforcement officials catch terrorists.
“So often the debate comes down to you’re either for national defense and public safety, or you’re in favor of individual liberties,” says Cohen. “Well, I think in this case we showed that if you take a thoughtful approach, you can find common ground.”