- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

Having long lauded the American Civil Liberties Union for its determined pledge that we can be both safe from terrorism and protected within the constitutional values that make us the freest people in the world, I was astonished to see in a July 31 front-page story in the New York Times that ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in January had signed a certification to the government that the ACLU would not knowingly hire people who appear on watchlists of questionable origin that name suspected supporters of terrorism.

As NYT reporter Adam Liptak took care to note, “Those lists are the very type it has strongly opposed in other contexts” because their unreliability can put innocent individuals in damaging governmentdatabases.Most tellingly, one of the lists Mr. Romero approved is called for in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act.

Mr. Romero signed that agreement to ensure that the civil liberties group would get about $500,000 this year from the Combined Federal Campaign, the government’s annual charity drive, which mandates that recipients of the funds sign a certification to not hire people on the watch lists.

Mr. Romero’s explanation for going against the ACLU’s ardent objections to those lists — including its filing a lawsuit against the government — was that, while he printed out the names on the watch lists, “I’ve never consulted them.”

The NYT front-page story, which caused consternation among some ACLU staff and members around the country, also reported that, when Mr. Romero finally told the ACLU national board in July that he had signed the agreement, there was a motion to rescind the certification, it being contrary to ACLU positions. Startlingly, that motion was rejected by a voice vote of the board. Said stunned board member Wendy Kaminer, “This is like the pope coming out in favor of abortion rights.”

The ACLU leadership — not the staff, which has been so valuably protecting the Bill of Rights — began to circle the wagons around Mr. Romero. At that July board meeting, ACLU PresidentNadine Strossen actually said that Mr. Romero’s signing of the agreement was “a very reasonable, certainly clever interpretation. Do we do more harm than good by spurning money by certifying something that is plausible but not the only plausible interpretation? [This is] completely a debate about strategy, not principle.”

Then why say it was clever to agree with something the ACLU has long opposed? That doesn’t sound like a principled strategy.

On Sunday, Aug. 1, on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” host Liane Hansen asked Mr. Romero, a lawyer, a logical question: “So in other words, when you signed it, you really weren’t — didn’t know what you were signing?”

Mr. Romero’s answer? “Well, the language is ambiguous.”

But in the NYT the day before, Combined Federal Campaign Director Mara Patermaster said unambiguously that it is no defense for an organization to sign the certification and then not inspect the watch lists of alleged names of those connected to terrorism. That, she said, would be “a false certification.” Isn’t a false filing illegal?

That same day, Mrs. Strossen sent the national board an e-mail imposing a gag order on its members: “As a result of The New York Times story … we want to remind you that all media calls should be referred to the ACLU press office.”

As part of its strategy to protect Mr. Romero, the ACLU leadership noted that at the July board meeting, a motion — for a study of restrictions connected to this charity and other grants to the ACLU — had been carried and referred to a board meeting in October, as if the delay was OK. But then the NYT revealed on July 31 that the board also had rejected the motion to disown the agreement publicly and challenge the requirement.

It was only after that story broke that Mr. Romero quickly told the NYT — and then wire services — that, by golly, the ACLU was withdrawing from the federal charity drive and rejecting the $500,000 it had expected to receive this year.

By Aug. 12, in a press release, the ACLU also indignantly announced that it has created “a coalition of more than a dozen nonprofits opposing the policies of the Combined Federal Campaign … that require charities to check their employees against a watch list.” Nowhere in the press release did Mr. Romero say that he himself had signed, for the ACLU, that very certification in January and had not even told his own board until July, while the ACLU affiliates around the country didn’t know he had signed it until the NYT July 31 story.

Much of the media that has been reporting the news of this sudden coalition also have neglected to note Mr. Romero’s turnaround. The ACLU’s leadership seems to believe its spinning has worked.

But has it?

The ACLU, at least its staff, continues to do essential work to preserve our liberties. But its leadership should be held accountable to its staff, membership and the ACLU’s integrity.

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