The ACLU on the Ramparts


“We have begun to tamper with some of the basic lawslaws that strike at the heart of what this democracy is about.”

—Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaking of John Ashcroft, National Law Journal, December 26

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 6, the Attorney General of the United States—belligerent because he knew of polls showing overwhelming patriotic support for his and the president’s new version of the Bill of Rights—opened with this salvo against his critics: ‘Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.”

Instead of his critics being intimidated, let alone silenced, their resistance is growing. Because of attacks on the slovenly original draft of the Bush executive order establishing military tribunals, revisions are being made in the Defense Department. The changes won’t be nearly enough, but they indicate that this administration does respond to sustained heat, even if the cowardly Congress, with exceedingly few exceptions, does not. Have you heard anything about endangered civil liberties from Tom Daschle? He needs counseling from Bob Barr. As for Trent Lott, that’s like asking George Bush.

And where is former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who knows more about constitutional history than anybody now in Congress? When Bill Clinton’s 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act eviscerated the oldest right of English-speaking peoples, habeas corpus, Moynihan tried hard to awaken his colleagues to the enormity of this breach of the Constitution. He only roused a dozen or so. Then, after reading my alarms, he said to me: “Where the hell was the rest of the press?” It had only been a glancing one-day story elsewhere.

Where, now, is Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

By contrast, the ACLU has, from the first Ashcroft-Bush abridgements of the Constitution, led the resistance. During the alleged congressional debate on the Ashcroft-Bush USA Patriot Act, the ACLU’s Washington staff, directed by Laura Murphy, worked 14-hour days to research the constitutional damage contained in each significant detail of that mephitic bill. Alas, hardly any member of Congress appears to have read the subsequent press releases, but some journalists have.

At the ACLU’s national headquarters in New York, its new executive director, 36-year-old Anthony Romero, has brought a forceful, proactive thrust to that organization. He started on that job a week before September 11 and has been intensely focused on rescuing the Constitution ever since.

As Romero told The New York Times (January 8), “We’ve been very clear to not be drawn into rhetorical polemical debates. We’re advocates based on the facts and what is actually happening.” (The ACLU’s membership has increased 16 percent in two months.)

When the Ashcroft dragnet imprisoned over 1000 immigrants in hopes of finding links to terrorism, Romero decided to “paint a human face” on these people held in secret, transferred from prison to prison to keep their lawyers and families from finding them, and otherwise stripped of elementary due-process rights. Romero knew, however, that if the ACLU simply complained to the general public about such abstractions as “due process,” most Americans—in fear of invisible enemies among them—would hardly be concerned with what was happening to noncitizens.

Acting on an idea by Brooklyn Law School professor Susan Herman, Romero sent letters to the consulates of the 10 countries with the largest numbers of their citizens being imprisoned by the attorney general: Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, India, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Turkey.

His letter to Yvuz Atkas, consul general at the Turkish consulate, pointed out the ACLU’s conviction that American rights and liberties “extend to all individuals in our country. . . . We are currently exploring litigation on behalf of individuals who have been detained or whose civil liberties and civil rights have been violated in the recent government activities against terrorism.”

The following paragraph in this and the other letters that went to the consulates was italicized by Romero:

I would greatly appreciate hearing from you or a member of your staff if your Consulate has been contacted by individuals who have been detained or arrested since September 11.

There have been many such calls to the consulates, not only from those detainees who can get to a phone, but also from their families and lawyers.

The ACLU letter continued: “We are particularly interested in highlighting instances of abuse by our government and in developing systemic litigation to challenge its unconstitutional practices. Moreover, we may be able to provide referrals to private attorneys for those individuals whom we are unable to assist directly.”

In each letter, there was a copy of the ACLU’s “Know Your Rights” brochure which, Romero said, “details the rights of noncitizens when detained or questioned by federal law enforcement agencies. We have also distributed them [at no cost] to our 53 affiliates across the country, and to hundreds of other organizations.”

The brochures are available in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and will be published in Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Hindi. (To get a copy, go to www.aclu.org/safeandfree—you can also join the ACLU on that Web site.)

These “Know Your Rights” brochures are also of use to anyone else subject to current or future Ashcroft dragnets.

When Mahmoud Allam, Egypt’s consul general, saw the letter, he—who had previously not heard of the ACLU—asked: “Is it banned here?” Not yet. Ashcroft has only been in office for a few months.

Anthony Romero, whose father was a janitor and then a banquet waiter at New York’s Warwick Hotel, is the first in his immediate family to graduate from high school and college. He got his law degree at Stanford. In the ACLU’s 81-year history, he is the first Latino and openly gay executive director. You will be hearing a lot from him as the battle to regain our rights goes on.