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Jewish World Review Jan 13.2005/ 3 Shevat, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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Dissent within the ACLU | To protect our individual liberties in our ongoing war against terrorism, the American Civil Liberties Union has valuably forged alliances with the American Conservative Union and other organizations with which it disagrees on some basic issues. But when it comes to dissent within its own ranks, the ACLU's top leadership has recently refused to acknowledge that it has violated ACLU principles — while its staff remains true to ACLU responsibilities.

On July 31, The New York Times revealed in a front-page story that executive director Anthony Romero had signed a certification that the ACLU "does not knowingly employ individuals or contribute funds to organizations found" on terrorism-related lists from the Justice, State and Treasury departments. The ACLU had vigorously and publicly denounced these error-prone lists.

Romero had signed the agreement without telling his board, let alone the membership, in order to continue to receive an annual contribution from the Combined Federal Campaign, a charity drive for federal employees and military personnel which requires adherence to those lists.

When The New York Times broke that story, dissenting national board members Michael Meyers and Wendy Kaminer protested vehemently and publicly. As a result, many fellow members of the board treated them as pariahs. Moreover, the top ACLU leadership successfully organized, as punishment for his whistle-blowing, a drive to insure that Meyers would not be re-elected to his other post on the ACLU's executive committee. Immediately after the Times story detailing Romero's agreement to abide by the watchlists, the executive director renounced the money from the Combined Federal Campaign and led a lawsuit, joined by other public interest organizations, against the requirement — an action he should have taken months before.

Then, on Dec. 18, another front-page story in The New York Times reported that the ACLU "is using sophisticated technology to collect a wide variety of information about its members and donors in a fund-raising effort" — notwithstanding "the organization's frequent criticism of banks, corporations and government agencies for their practice" of creating databanks, some eventually used for extensive national security watchlists.

Unintimidated by previous criticisms from ACLU's leadership for her whistle-blowing, Wendy Kaminer told the Times that "data-mining on people without informing them (is) not illegal, but it is a violation of our values. It is hypocrisy."

The admirably irrepressible Michael Meyers added: "If I give the ACLU $20, I have not given them permission to investigate my partners, who I'm married to, what they do, what my real estate holdings are, what my wealth is, and who else I give my money to."

In a press release after this second story on his resourceful activities, Romero insisted that all this assiduously gathered data-mined information on members and donors is kept entirely confidential. Other data-miners have made the same pledge, which often turns out to be illusory to the harm of those listed.

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Because of their continued dissent against what they consider to be Romero's bypassing of ACLU's principles, Meyers and Kaminer are now being referred to by some national ACLU board members as "whistlepunks." Those board members appear to believe that since the ACLU performs essential Bill of Rights work — as indeed it does — it should be immune from internal criticism. This view of dissent from within is not shared by the ACLU's staff (with whom I come in continual contact, and greatly respect).

An unintentionally amusing fallout from the ACLU leadership's disrespect for the free speech of its internal heretics was a letter to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, from Aryeh Neier, a former executive director of the ACLU. With the endorsement of the ACLU leadership, Neier upbraided the Times for placing the "minor dispute" about databasing members and donors on its front page, and suggested the newspaper "should seek an opportunity to make amends to the ACLU." Keller told The New York Sun: "Maybe he meant that the Times should send people over to the ACLU to give them back rubs, or that we should remember them in our prayers. It would be offensive if (Neier) meant we should publish flattering pieces about the ACLU ... I can't believe he meant that."

My wish for the new year is that ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and ACLU president Nadine Strossen will become more worthy of the organization's staff and members, who know — as ACLU founder Roger Baldwin once told me — that "no civil liberties battle is ever entirely won." And so, the ACLU's unending work should not be clouded by its leadership's assumption of infallibility.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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