Sunshine on the ACLU: a mea culpa

Freedom Watch

TRUTH TO POWER: Kaminer went public with complaints most ACLU members kept to themselves.

"Standing up to your political enemies is easy, fun, and often profitable," writes Barney Frank, on the lead jacket blurb for Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, Boston-based civil-liberties attorney and social critic Wendy Kaminer's firsthand account of the corruption that, since shortly after 9/11, has infected the highest levels of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Taking public issue with your friends and allies on a matter of great principle is none of these, but it is a far more important service to others."

I've known both Frank and Kaminer since the start of their careers and the early days of my own, and I take pride in sharing with them a willingness to speak truth to power regardless of whose ox is gored. But after reading Worst Instincts (Beacon Press, 160 pages, $24.95), and Frank's blurb, I've concluded that I haven't been holding up my end. As an ACLU member since the 1960s who has served on the board of directors of the semi-autonomous Massachusetts state affiliate (ACLUM) for some three decades, I've been airing, in house, grievances against the ugly things that Kaminer, a former ACLU Massachusetts representative and an ACLUM board member like myself, took public.

Those missteps, taken by ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, are legion. Beginning when Romero took over, less than one week before 9/11, the organization drifted away from its viewpoint-neutral approach to protecting liberty. Leadership grew disdainful of internal dissent and started covering up its own errors. Ironically, it sought to restrict the dissenting speech of its board members. These fundamental flaws emerged, as Kaminer and I (among others) saw, when perhaps the ACLU was needed most — the early days of the "war on terror."

In 2003, when the New York attorney general's office accused the ACLU of violating the privacy of those who purchased items through its Web site — the same privacy rights that the ACLU insisted other organizations protect — Romero hid it from the national board. Later, in order to qualify the organization for contributions by federal employees, he agreed to consult a federal terrorist watch list before hiring anyone. When he was caught, Romero twisted and turned and covered up an action that was clearly in violation of long-standing ACLU policy against blacklists.

Kaminer, for her part, was accused by fellow board members of breaching her fiduciary duty to the ACLU by speaking to the New York Times about these and other matters. Her list of Romero's misdeeds and the board's failures is long and well documented. Worst Instincts chronicles Kaminer's unsuccessful attempts to get Romero and the national board to right the ship.

I can't review the book — I'm too close to the author and the events — but its publication does provoke a mea culpa. Kaminer tried mightily to bring Romero's highly troubling conduct first to the ACLU board, and later to the public's attention. But Romero successfully asserted control over the board and Kaminer was squeezed out — so marginalized that she declined to run for a third term in 2006.

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  Topics: News Features , Lyndon Johnson, American Civil Liberties Union, Barney Frank,  More more >
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