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Public library computer { September 17 2001 }

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Hijackers May Have Accessed Computers at Public Libraries
Authorities Investigating Possible Internet Communications

By Sue Anne Pressley and Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 17, 2001; Page A04

MIAMI, Sept. 16 -- Investigators are looking into the possibility some of the suspected hijackers in last week's deadly attacks on Washington and New York may have communicated with each other by using computers at public libraries.

At least one South Florida librarian has told authorities she recognized the name of a suspected terrorist on one of her computer sign-in sheets after the FBI released the list of hijackers' names Friday.

Library officials in Fairfax County also said today FBI agents Thursday requested the computer lab sign-in lists from the Sherwood Regional Library in the Mount Vernon area. Agents picked up copies of the computer logs from July 1 to Sept. 13, which included approximately 50 pages, according to branch manager Liz Promen.

In Delray Beach, Fla., librarian Kathleen Hensman said Mohald Alshehri, who is listed as a hijacker, and another Middle Eastern man came into the library within the past month wanting to use a computer with Internet access. She said the men appeared to be on edge and watched her to see whether she was monitoring their use.

"It just stood out in my mind, their behavior and the name," said Hensman, 41, who heads the reference department. "It's a public facility -- what can we do? I feel saddened that we were part of this in a way."

Public library officials say the use of computers with Internet access, which affords clients the option of logging into chat rooms and exchanging private messages, is a controversial issue in the library industry, and that policies on patron use and the amount of privacy allowed differ from place to place. In Fairfax County, after marking lab sign-in lists, patrons can work at a computer without logging on.

The Delray Beach library is near where several of the suspects reportedly stayed in the weeks leading up to the attacks. Hensman said it was Alshehri who affixed his name to the computer-use sign-up sheet.

"I asked them, 'Do you need an Internet computer?' One said yes," Hensman recalled.

She said the two men sat down at one of the computers with a screen shielded by a privacy protector.

"They were looking up at me and down at the computer," she said. "They wanted to be aware of what I was doing."

The two men used the computer for an hour, then were joined by a third man. She described the three as in their twenties, Middle Eastern and "good-looking."

Hensman said she called local police Saturday, and they said they would pass on the information to the FBI. As of late this afternoon, however, she said FBI agents had not contacted the library.

The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale reported today that visitors to two other libraries in Hollywood, Fla., said they recalled seeing Mohamed Atta there. Authorities have identified Atta as one of the pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center Tuesday and have said he and several other suspects lived in the Hollywood area.

Betty Dejean, the assistant director of the Broward County libraries division, said today neither the FBI nor local law enforcement agencies had contacted library officials to ask about the hijackers' use of the computers. However, she said she could not release any information without a court order, citing Florida statutes.

Dejean said she had sent out a memo to staff members at the 37 Broward County branches, which include three in Hollywood, reminding employees they are not allowed to comment on books checked out by clients or on client computer use.

In Fairfax County, library officials said today none of the five men suspected in the Dulles hijacking possessed a library card. The suspects' names also do not appear on the logs, which library officials provided to The Washington Post, on the three days leading up to the attacks.

In Norman, Okla., where an alleged associate of the hijackers lived until he was arrested in August on a passport violation, public library official Andrew Peters said he had heard of no investigation involving the use of his system's computers. But he said Internet use is "a hot topic" in libraries.

"Some libraries do have it as policy that they allow privacy," said Peters, head of technology for the Pioneer library system, which comprises nine branches in three Oklahoma counties. "In our particular case, our policy is that use of libraries is a public space -- in the same way that we don't allow people to remove their clothes in public, we have our computers out visible, where anybody can see."

Fairfax library officials said the county has not installed filters that prevent people from viewing pornographic Web sites or accessing chat rooms.

"If we observe someone in a chat room, we tell them to stop," Promen said.

But she added that library volunteers who staff the computer room cannot see everything everyone is doing. "We do try to put our computers in fairly public places," she said. "We hope that that suffices."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company

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