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ACLU holds convention as post-Sept. 11 interest in group surges | (KRT) Even in the best of times, it's never easy to be a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. The group is often reviled for defending the constitutional rights of pornographers, Klansmen, native-born Nazis, common criminals - all kinds of undesirables.

So you can guess what it's like for the ACLU these days, defending immigrants in the post-Sept. 11 era, and contending that Attorney General John Ashcroft has invaded Americans' privacy rather than making citizens safer. Sure enough, critics contend that the ACLU is undercutting the war against terrorism.

But as ACLU members from across the nation met here Wednesday for the first grass-roots convention in the group's 83-year history, its leaders stressed the upside. As ACLU president Nadine Strossen remarked, "The half-empty glass is also half full."

Translation: In what the ACLU views as a dark hour for civil liberties, when Americans may be tempted to trade some of their rights for personal safety, it nevertheless is experiencing a historic surge in membership - topping 400,000, a record high. The ranks have swelled by more than 25 percent since the autumn of 2001, when Ashcroft made his first pitch for the new surveillance tools that are now codified in the USA Patriot Act.

Backed by a $50 million budget, the ACLU is juggling 33 lawsuits on the terrorism front. It also starts production Monday on a national TV ad that will target Ashcroft's current push for expanded powers beyond the Patriot Act. He wants more authority to jail suspects without bond before trial, and he wants a looser definition of "material support" for terrorism - a move, the ACLU claims, that would allow federal agents to go after political protesters.

"Basically," said Stephen Schulhofer, an ACLU member and a former board officer in Illinois, "the ACLU has never been stronger - yet it has never been weaker, and on the defensive, than it is now. It has a very tough job in the current environment because its issues touch a raw emotional nerve. What should be embarrassing about trying to defend the Bill of Rights? But for a lot of Americans, it probably looks like it's `in league with Osama bin Laden.'"

Its critics would not totally dispute that. Paul Kamenar, chief counsel with the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, which has jousted in court with the ACLU, said Wednesday: "We're in dangerous times that call for increased law-enforcement powers. We can't be such sticklers with the Constitution that we allow our enemies to do us in. The ACLU is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. They're going after this administration for political reasons."

Actually, the ACLU is going after both parties. Anthony Romero, the executive director, triggered a roar of approval Wednesday when, in a speech, he skewered "the timidity, the reticence, the complicity of the Democrats" who helped pass the Patriot Act with scant scrutiny - thereby demonstrating that Democrats would "rather stick their heads in the sand than stick their necks out for the Bill of Rights."

The ACLU is not without allies, however. The group that was used as a political football by presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988 (he said the ACLU's "card-carrying members" were "out in left field"), is now attracting some high-profile conservatives, such as Phyllis Schlafly, former Rep. Bob Barr, and key Capitol Hill Republicans, who fear that expanded federal surveillance is intruding on citizen privacy.

That still won't help the ACLU win a popularity contest, not when it continues to assail the FBI for targeting Middle Eastern immigrants, arresting hundreds in secret, hiding their identities, and detaining them for months without charges. In polls, most Americans don't seem concerned about these moves.

But for the ACLU - founded in 1920 when a Democratic administration swept up nearly 6,000 immigrants during the Red Scare, and the sole group to defend the interned Japanese Americans during World War II - the targeting of immigrants since Sept. 11 is merely the leading indicator of a new national-security regime. Thanks to the Patriot Act, for example, it's a lot easier for the feds to scrutinize a citizen's Internet habits and library books.

ACLU president Strossen, in an interview on the eve of the gathering, acknowledged the ACLU's image problem: "When the government invokes security and safety, that appeals to the gut. There's an instinctive wish, an understandable human desire, to trust the government, to believe that if it's doing something, then it must be for a benign purpose.

"And people have never been more scared about their safety, because we're dealing with an enemy that isn't rational or predictable. 9/11 hit us, too. Our (national) headquarters is eight blocks from ground zero, and that area was hell unto itself. The smell in the air. We couldn't get to our office for four weeks. We, too, felt it in the gut.

"But even though most people today would probably say they're willing to give up some liberties, that's only in the abstract. When they really see their own privacy being violated - and not just the rights of aliens - they don't like that."

The group's lawyers are suing on behalf of two peace activists who were bumped from a plane and detained by San Francisco police last year when their names appeared on a secret "no fly" list. They are defending a Florida doctor of Indian descent who was handcuffed without explanation by air marshals in Philadelphia, and held by city police for four hours. They also cite the California retiree who was visited by the FBI after making an anti-Bush remark at his gym.

But Kamenar, the opposing attorney, says the ACLU is just "creating hysteria. This is the same crowd that objected to the introduction of metal detectors at airports in the '70s, calling it a violation of rights. Detectors were done to stop the hijacking problem, and I bet citizens now say, `I have no problem going through them.' Reality dictates that we have to err on the side of being aggressive."

Actually, the Justice Department last week faulted itself for being too aggressive; in an internal report, it found "significant problems" with the way it detained hundreds of immigrants after Sept. 11, none of whom were ever linked to terrorism. And other aggressive ideas, such as Ashcroft's attempt to start a citizen surveillance program ("TIPS"), have been blocked by Republicans. FBI Director Robert Mueller will risk a visit to the lions' den by addressing the ACLU on Friday.

Yet, as ACLU officials conceded Wednesday, it has been difficult for the group to determine the extent to which the new surveillance powers have been used against American citizens, because the federal courts won't order full disclosure. And that's just one reason why longtime member Schulhofer is less than bullish about the ACLU's foreseeable prospects.

He said: "If the voices of caution can succeed in slowing down this government steamroller, if we can step back and look at where we're going, then some of our privacy rights can be reclaimed. But if there's no change in the public mood, if this is a war without end, then I think these liberties will be lost forever."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services