The Spinning Wheel

A story in The New York Times causes an ACLU leader to scurry to create a cover-up

I am very dismayed that it took a front-page story inThe New York Times to get the ACLU to rescind the agreement[not to hire people whose names appear on watch lists of suspected supporters of terrorism] and return the money[from the federal charity drive]. I fear that if theTimes had not gotten wind of this story that the ACLU would not be rescinding this agreement.Wendy Kaminer, a member of the ACLU national board, National Public Radio, Weekend Edition Sunday, August 1


The startling July 31 New York Times story by Adam Liptak reporting that Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, had signed that agreement countering the ACLU's most basic principles also included an equally dismaying revelation about the organization's national board. At a July 9 all-day meeting of the national board in San Francisco, "a motion to rescind [that agreement] was overwhelmingly rejected by a voice vote."

Stunned, ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer told the Times: "This is like the pope coming out in favor of abortion rights." And dauntlessly independent executive-committee member Michael Meyers said, "We're in the midst of an organizational . . . crisis of enormous size."

Anthony Romero was not the only one eviscerating these fundamental ACLU positions. By circling the wagons around him, a majority of the national board was undercutting the credibility of the top leadership of the ACLU, including the board itself. The credibility of rank-and-file staff attorneys and the members remains intact, and should not be clouded by actions they didn't even know about.

The day of the Times story, Romero and associates in New York began the spin machine. In the August 1 New York Times, Adam Liptak reported: "The American Civil Liberties Union withdrew from a federal charity drive yesterday, rejecting the $500,000 it expected to receive through it this year."

The story quoted Romero as writing to the director of the federal charity program that he was "disturbed and surprised" that nonprofit organizations had "to check their employees against a 'blacklist' in order to receive donations." Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, he was shocked, shocked!

But that's what the agreement he signed said.

The ACLU spin machine hired Jody Powell, who used to help manage the news for President Jimmy Carter, to add his firepower to the crisis. The Associated Press ran an August 1 story that led with the ACLU withdrawing from the program and followed the Romero line that the ACLU did not think the policy's language required it to check employees' names against the watch list. A July 31 story even more favorable to Romero was run by United Press International. It quoted Romero as saying, "The ACLU will not be intimidated. We will not compromise."

On August 1, in a self-congratulatory e-mail "from Anthony Romero to the ACLU National Board," the executive director crowed: "Well, what a difference a day makes! Below you will find several articles that describe the actions we took yesterday and a marked shift in media coverage. . . . The story in the media has quickly shifted from ACLU vs. ACLU to ACLU vs. government's requirements."

Romero ended his sigh of relief with, "I look forward to a dialogue about how we can take steps to ensure that we not find ourselves in a situation like this again."

His first step should have been to consider resigning.

Romero did not mention a revealing paragraph toward the end of the original New York Times article:

"In an article submitted to the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal after the July 9 board meeting in San Francisco, and supplied to a reporter by the ACLU, Mr. Romero criticized the certification requirement as 'an insidious chill on speech' though he did not note that he had signed the certification." (Emphasis added.)

When I refused to be drawn into the Romero spin, Emily Whitfield, head of the ACLU's press office at its New York headquarters, told me that many nonprofit organizations had signed that blacklist agreement. "Call the Center for Constitutional Rights, and call Amnesty International!" she challenged me.

I did. Jeff Fogel, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me: "Somebody in our development office did sign on without telling any of us in legal affairs. As soon as we saw it, we decertified the Center from that fund."

And Bill Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, told me: "A mid-level employee checked off that certification without notifying me. As soon as we found out, we decertified." Both Fogel and Schulz saw nothing ambiguous about the requirement.

As ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer said on National Public Radio: While Anthony Romero was silent about his signing "for at least six months, [employees of some] other organizations have been signing and the ACLU leadership has done nothing to stop it. The ACLU should have challenged it immediately in court," and alerted all the other organizations.

After Romero had been found out in the July 31 New York Times, he declared in an August 12 ACLU press release that he is leading a crusade of nonprofit organizations against the blacklist. He omitted mention of his own previous signing.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, is also an ACLU vice president and a member of its executive committee and national board. Meyers says: "These ACLU leaders have actually tried to gag dissenting board members from speaking with the media, and have prevented equal and timely distribution of essential documents to dissenting board members. . . . What is needed is the formation of an independent commission of inquiry to examine what happened here and why. . . . The results of such an inquiry, conducted by ACLU members outside the Board of Directors, who have impeccable reputations as civil libertarians and honest brokers, could very well reveal blunders if not misconduct of such import as to not only shame the organization, but could require the resignation of both the Executive Director and ACLU President Nadine Strossen."

 
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