The federal Government Printing Office has ordered libraries across the country to destroy five US Department of Justice pamphlets that provide how-to instructions on prosecuting asset forfeiture cases, invoking a rarely-used authority to order the removal of items the government routinely sends to hundreds of libraries.
The pamphlets are among the material the office sends each year to about 1,300 depository libraries. Those facilities, at least two in each congressional district, are designated by Congress to receive and make available copies of virtually all documents the federal government publishes.
Representatives of the 65,000-member American Library Association said they did not know why the pamphlets were ordered destroyed, and they pledged yesterday to challenge the order as an infringement on a century-old guarantee of public access to unclassified documents that the government publishes each year.
Patrice McDermott, the association's deputy director of governmental affairs, said 20 to 30 instances have occurred since the middle of the 19th century in which the printing office, acting on behalf of a federal department or agency, has asked for documents to be returned or destroyed. Most previous recalls were for materials found to contain a factual error or determined to be out-of-date, she said.
Bernard A. Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, said the Government Printing Office distributes documents with the approval of the Justice Department and other federal departments and agencies. Although the documents are kept in libraries, he said, ownership is retained by the federal agencies that produce the materials and they may ask for the materials to be returned.
For example, in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, the Government Printing Office ordered libraries to return a compact disc containing detailed information on the country's public water works systems.
Still, Margolis said the e-mail order to destroy the pamphlets "came out of the blue" Thursday. He said much, if not all, of the materials-such as statutes on asset forfeiture-are "the law of the land" readily available online and in law books.
Margolis said the pamphlets will remain available at the Boston Public Library while he prepares a challenge to the directive.
Calls to the Government Printing Office seeking comment were not returned yesterday.
The office's one-paragraph directive listed the five pamphlets, with titles such as "Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure" and "Select Federal Assets Forfeiture Statutes," and instructed librarians to "withdraw these materials immediately and destroy all copies by any means to prevent disclosure of their content," according to a copy of the e-mail sent to the Boston Public Library and all other depository libraries.
The directive concluded that "the Department of Justice has determined that these materials are for internal use only."
Casey Stavropoulos, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the pamphlets were written by Justice Department attorneys who intended them to be law enforcement tools for federal prosecutors.
She declined to discuss the content of the pamphlets but said "they were never intended for public distribution. They were developed for internal use."
Margolis said he sought an explanation of the directive from an official in the federal Office of Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering, who told him that some information in the pamphlets could disclose legal strategy.
But he said the official conceded that much of the information has been publicly available for at least four years.
Lester Joseph, head of that federal office, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
McDermott said federal law allows government documents created for internal use to be included in the depository system if they are considered "educational" or serve another public interest.
"We are going to push the Department of Justice on this," she said. "This material is already out there. Some of these documents are merely compilations of federal statutes. You can find this stuff in law offices and law libraries across the country. We just don't know the rationale for this."
The pamphlets contain detailed legal research on asset forfeiture law, including statutes and case histories on the legal means of seizing cash, cars, houses, boats, and other property of convicted drug dealers and other criminals.
The materials, dated from 2000 to 2004, include documents and instructions that take prosecutors from "the drafting of the forfeiture allegation . . . to post-trial phases of a criminal forfeiture case."
The pamphlets were written by the Justice Department's Office of Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering and seem to be a comprehensive resource for prosecutors handling forfeiture cases.
Margolis said the materials seemed very similar to the vast majority of other materials from the Government Printing Office.
"There is a precedent danger that if a handful of documents that appear innocuous-the forfeiture statutes-if these become subject to a casual or cavalier yanking, then what is next? Maybe it's things that are really critical and primary to people's livelihood, to their safety, or to their health," he said.
Margolis said he is particularly concerned about the process for determining which documents are excluded from libraries.
"I think at a minimum we are entitled to know the process, how these determinations are made, and whether excluding something is truly in the public interest," he said. "The public should get its day in court."
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