NEWTON — FBI agents responding to a terrorist threat last Wednesday could lawfully have seized library e-mail records, but decided not to, a bureau spokeswoman said yesterday.
“For a threat kind of event, you don’t necessarily need a warrant,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI”s Boston office. Warrants are usually time-consuming, she said. “If you wait, the emergency could turn into a crisis, and maybe a loss of life.”
Between 11 a.m. and noon, Jan. 18, Brandeis University Police received an e-mail making an unspecified, but credible terrorist threat against a university building. Emergency responders evacuated several campus buildings and a nearby elementary school, and local and federal officials swept the buildings with bomb-sniffing dogs.
By about 2 p.m., law enforcement officials had traced the e-mail to a computer at the Newton Free Library on Homer Street.
Newton police officers and FBI agents rushed to the library, but Newton Mayor David B. Cohen and library Director Kathy Glick-Weil asked officials to obtain warrants before surrendering library computers for search.
About 10 hours later, warrants in hand, agents removed the computers from the building for inspection.
FBI agents involved decided not to invoke their right to seize the material, in order to “be cooperative and not inconvenience the library,” Marcinkiewicz said. She would not say on what information they had based their decision, citing the ongoing investigation.
“The decision on the imminence of this threat was not determined by the city of Newton,” said city spokesman Jeremy Solomon. “It was determined by the FBI,” and Cohen’s decision did not hinder their investigation.
Here comes the damage control:
Glick-Weil said FBI agents never told her they needed the information to prevent a terrorist attack.
She disputed statements by an unnamed law enforcement official, quoted in yesterday”s Daily News Tribune, suggesting local officials had been uncooperative. Library technology staff helped investigators locate the computer from which the e-mail had been sent, she said.
“I feel I did everything I needed to do to protect the privacy of the people I need to protect, and to obey the law,” Glick-Weil said.
Maybe. But if a bomb had exploded at Brandeis, your damage control efforts would be considerably more difficult today.