Unfortunately. You’d have a hard time making any of this believable in a paranoid, high-octane thriller. John Doe and company spoke at this year’s ALA conference to share what it’s like to live under an NSL gag order.

The four librarians under the gag order weren’t allowed to talk to each other by phone. So they e-mailed. Later, they weren’t allowed to e-mail.

After the ACLU took on the case and it went to court in Bridgeport, the librarians were not allowed to attend their own hearing. Instead, they had to watch it on closed circuit TV from a locked courtroom in Hartford, 60 miles away. “Our presence in the courtroom was declared a threat to national security,” Chase said.

Forced to make information public as the case moved forward, the government resorted to one of its favorite tactics: releasing heavily redacted versions of documents while outing anyone who didn’t roll over for Uncle Sam. In this case, they named Chase, despite the fact that he was legally compelled to keep his own identity secret.

Then the phone started ringing. Pesky reporters wanted info. One day, the AP called Chase’s house and got his son, Sam, on the phone. When Chase got home, he took one look at his son’s face. “I could tell something was very wrong,” he said. Sam told him the AP had called saying that Chase was being investigated by the FBI. “What’s going on?” Sam asked his father. Chase couldn’t tell him. For months, he worried about what his son must have been thinking. As the case moved forward, the librarians had to resort to regular duplicity with co-workers and family — mysteriously disappearing from work without an explanation, secretly convening in subway stations, dancing around the truth for months. The ACLU even advised Chase to move to a safehouse.

The government only lifted the gag order when it looked as if it would be struck down in court. Thousands of citizens living under the same Kafkaesque gag order face prison if they go public.  Though I suppose the FBI would point out it’s not so bad so long as you don’t fight back.

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