WASHINGTON – Seeking to preserve its ability to obtain records from libraries under the USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department said Thursday that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers apparently used a public computer in a New Jersey state college library to make the reservations for the flights they commandeered.
Kenneth Wainstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and a former general counsel of the FBI, told a House Judiciary subcommittee that four times in August 2001, individuals using Internet accounts registered to hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar used the library computers to review and order airline tickets on an Internet travel reservations site. The last documented visit, he said, occurred Aug. 30, 2001. Records indicate that someone using Alhazmi’s account used the library computer “to review Sept. 11 reservations that had been previously booked.”
He said they did not use the computers to purchase their Sept. 11 tickets.
Alhazmi and Almihdhar were aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which took off from Dulles International Airport outside the U.S. capital and crashed into the Pentagon.
The disclosure, at a hearing on the USA Patriot Act, is part of a Justice Department effort to rebut criticism of Section 215 of the law, which gives the government broad access to business and other records in terror investigations. The provision is one of 16 set to expire at the end of the year. Congress is holding hearings to determine which ones should be renewed or amended.
The hijackers’ facility with computers – including those at libraries – has been well known, although Justice Department officials said they had not divulged details of the New Jersey case until Thursday. Wainstein declined to identify the specific library used.
Wainstein mentioned a previously reported instance in which other members of the plot had used computers at a library in Delray Beach, Fla., to gain access to the Internet in July 2001.
Section 215 has been a focus of concern for library groups. They say the provision gives the government power to pry into the reading habits of ordinary citizens. Some library groups and members want to limit investigators’ ability to obtain those records. The Justice Department has said that the provision has not been used in connection with library probes, but that it feels it is important to retain the power.
“Libraries should not be carved out as safe havens for terrorists and spies,” Wainstein said. Critics said they did not disagree that the government should have the ability to track records associated with genuine terrorist suspects. But they said they were concerned that Section 215 was so broadly written that it allowed the government to obtain information about people who were far removed from terrorist plots.
“We believe that … searches under Section 215 should be limited to records about foreign terrorists or spies, and that the records of everyone else – including records about their library use – should remain private,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, associate director of the ACLU’s Washington office.