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Librarian takes heat over search

In the face of a storm of protest, Newton officials defended their decision to demand that the FBI obtain a warrant before searching the public library's computers to track down who had e-mailed a threat to Brandeis University.

The head librarian's defiance prompted a rare public rebuke from the US attorney in Boston and a tongue-lashing from a conservative radio talk host who called her a ''loony liberal."

''I believe in the rule of law," said Kathy Glick-Weil, 56, executive director of the Newton Free Library. ''The law in Massachusetts protects the privacy of library users in their intellectual pursuits. It's important for people to be able to read without thinking the government is looking over their shoulder.

''I felt that I was doing my job."

Both Glick-Weil and Mayor David B. Cohen said they insisted on the warrant in order to ensure that the e-mails of other library patrons would not be available for government scrutiny.

''Had we given them the entire three computers without a search warrant," Cohen said, ''they would have been able to examine everything, including the communications of innocent citizens who use those computers every single day for the most benign and appropriate purposes."

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, who usually leaves commentary to spokesmen, said investigators needed to move quickly to respond to the threat.

''It was a very important matter, and time was of the essence," Sullivan said last week in a telephone interview.

''Getting a warrant is very time-consuming," said Sullivan, who ordered the FBI search. ''You have to collect facts, prepare an affidavit, present it to a judge . . .That's valuable time that's potentially lost in an investigation."

Asked whether obtaining a warrant during a criminal search is standard practice, Sullivan said law-enforcement officials in the early stages of an investigation depend on people's cooperation.

''The standard practice is to ask for cooperation. What's unusual is for a government employee to refuse to cooperate."

Cohen, who said he was in touch with Glick-Weil throughout the day of the threat, said the city did not impede the investigation.

''We cooperated with them," Cohen said. ''Had there been the kind of emergency where moments counted, it's my understanding they have the right to do a warrantless search. Had they invoked that, of course we would have turned over to them everything they had asked for."

Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI's Boston office, confirmed that the agency is allowed to perform a warrantless search under certain conditions.

The investigation concerned an anonymous e-mail sent to Edward Callahan, Brandeis University's director of public safety, at about 11:30 a.m. Jan. 18. Callahan said the e-mail concerned ''a planned terrorist attack" against the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at the Waltham university. Callahan said he contacted the Waltham police and the FBI.

The Heller School was evacuated about noon, and a university science complex was emptied around 1:30 p.m. because of potentially hazardous chemicals inside, Callahan said. About 500 students and staff at the nearby William F. Stanley Elementary School were sent home, although the school was not threatened.

Glick-Weil said local police arrived at the library at about 2 p.m. and told her to shut it down and not allow anyone to go in or out. The library was locked down but only for a few minutes, she said.

Soon afterward, three FBI agents appeared with a computer specialist and said they wanted access to all 13 computers in a second-floor laboratory and eight more in the children's room.

Glick-Weil refused.

She arranged, however, for the FBI's specialist to work with Ryan Hanson, the library's assistant superintendent of reference, who isolated several computers that could have figured in the threat.

Cohen, the city's lawyers, and Glick-Weil together worked out the city's stance.

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