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What War on Terrorism?

August 8, 2004

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken yet another embarrassing position, this one involving an anti-terrorism agreement it made with the federal government and then decided to ignore. As a condition of receiving donations through the deduction program for federal employees, the ACLU signed a statement in January agreeing not to hire people whose names appear on “watch lists” of those suspected of having terrorist ties.

The lists are promulgated by the U.S. government, the United Nations and the European Union. Some 2,000 groups have signed this certification since it became a requirement last October. Not hiring people who might want to blow up our cities would seem to be a modest step if you want the government to help in your fund-raising, but inside the ACLU this was a wildly controversial idea. But the organization wanted the money, so it made a decision: Make the agreement, but don’t live up to it.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, made this argument: The agreement said the organization could not “knowingly” hire anyone on the terrorism watch lists, but if he didn’t look at the lists, how could he know who was on them? “I’ve printed them out (but) but I’ve never consulted them,” Romero said. Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU board, declared that the “knowingly” gambit was “a very reasonable, certainly clever interpretation.”

The Romero excuse will now take its place alongside “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” and “He was never alone in a hotel with her.” Surely, the lawyers at the ACLU could have figured out that the word “knowingly” was inserted not as a handy linguistic sinkhole but as a way of protecting groups that may have unwittingly hired a terrorism suspect.

But Romero managed to sound both shocked and aggrieved that anyone would expect him to keep his word. Sharing his amazement on National Public Radio, he said, “We wake up this morning, and we open up the newspapers, and we read from the head of that Combined Federal Campaign that they want us to check those lists.” That’s the danger of waking up in the morning. You are often stunned to learn what you agreed to in January.

ACLU lawyers signed off on the charade of using the word “knowingly” for evasive purposes, thus calling a good deal of surprised attention to the quality of the legal advice the organization seems to be getting. As board member Wendy Kaminer said, “Any lawyer who tells you that you can sign an agreement with the federal government and then make no effort to comply with it is giving you very bad advice indeed.”

Romero sounded as if he thought his group’s duplicity was highly honorable. “No amount of money is worth violating our principles,” he said. “We would never terminate or kick off board members or staff members because of their associational rights.” Associational rights? Consider the unreality of that term as applied to terrorism. You would think the government is trying to weed out people wearing Ralph Nader buttons.

Oddly, the ACLU board decided by voice vote on July 9 to observe the agreement, but three weeks later, the day the story of this ACLU adventure hit the newspapers, Romero terminated the arrangement with the government (apparently without another vote by the board).

With the word “hypocrisy” still hovering over the ACLU, Romero decided to go on the offensive, which, as usual, meant railing against John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act. A press release, threatening to sue, announced that the ACLU would not be intimidated by Ashcroft and his “black list.” Romero said the list threatens many Americans, particularly those in children’s services, religious groups, and organizations concerned with health and the environment. He predicted “uproar” among postal workers and other government employees when they learn about the “knowingly” issue.

This presumes that federal workers and social service groups generally share the ACLU’s reflexive hostility to almost every program dealing with the threat of terrorism. The ACLU usually puts “war on terrorism” in quotation marks, apparently to show disdain for anti-terrorism efforts. According to testimony in the Senate, the ACLU is likely to sue any airline that deviates from “random screening” and questions more than two passengers from any ethnic or geographic group. (Will terrorists agree to fly only in groups of two?) The ACLU has raised a hullabaloo about CAPPS II, the Transportation Security Administration’s new customer screening system.

Most Americans understand that there will have to be trade-offs between individual liberties and the need to prevent a major catastrophe. But some people do not believe in trade-offs. For the ACLU it is still 1955, and the mission is to oppose the government, no matter what.

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