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The ACLU Wars Drag On: But Enough is Enough

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A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts about the controversy over the American Civil Liberties Union, sparked by the launch of a website, Save the ACLU, in which the former executive director, Ira Glasser, and several former board members call for the resignation of the organization's two top officials. There was a round of comments - some from people grateful to me for helping them make sense of the matter, some criticisms from leaders of the Savior group, some from me explaining myself further or mixing it up with my critics. A few former ACLU officials and I then launched our own independent website, Voices for the ACLU, with letters of support from myriad ACLU constituencies and leaders, as well as a strong statement of solidarity from more than fifty of the nation's most prominent and respected civil rights and social justice leaders. That prompted the New York Times to run a story about our pro-ACLU activities.

I think it's likely that the Save the ACLU folks have reached their high-water mark of support, but they don't seem to be going away. Someone shared with me a few days ago 9-page memo Ira Glasser sent to New York Civil Liberties Union board members (he was once the organization's director) in an unsuccessful effort to get them to back his position, or invite Anthony Romero and his key supporters to debate him before the board. And just today Nat Hentoff weighed in with a USA Today column, recycling all the Save the ACLU material, asking for the resignation of the ACLU's leadership. (Hentoff's anonymously-sourced Village Voice columns in 1983, attacking the first female director of the New York Civil Liberties Union -- who happened, like Anthony Romero, to be Ira Glasser's successor -- sought to drive her from her post. Thought Hentoff was an NYCLU Board member at the time, he never attempted to raise the issues within the organization. History repeats itself, and with almost the same cast of characters.)

I'm sure you agree this is not the most fruitful use of Ira's, or Anthony's, formidable talents when the nation is in the midst of the most dire civil liberties crisis since the McCarthy period, and one which the ACLU, despite these distractions, to address with vigor and effectiveness. And I am very eager to retire from the ACLU wars in which I am a voluntary enlistee since I have a day job, too. But given the concerted and destructive campaign against its leadership, those of us who feel it deserves thanks and applause, not condemnation, have no choice but to speak out.

And I promised in my last post here to address more directly the "facts of the matter" as Ira and Wendy Kaminer keep calling them, and I like to keep my word. I've read the most comprehensive statement of the Saviors' case, posted on their website, and I urge anyone with the interest or stamina to do the same. I also hope Ira Glasser posts his nine-page memo to the NYCLU Board on the Save the ACLU website, because it is quite revealing, perhaps unintentionally so.

Let's recount what is not in dispute. Glasser told the New York Times a week ago that he and the other Saviors had no quarrel with the ACLU's public record of effectiveness in these challenging times for civil liberties, nor any criticism of the organization's extraordinary success in raising additional funds -- much, by the way, from a huge burst in recruitment of new members. In other words, the ACLU in its fundamental and important mission is on the right course, and as strong and effective as it has ever been. Not a small point to keep in mind.

Apparently what bothers Glasser is that those of us supporting the ACLU leadership won't engage him and his colleagues in a chapter-and-verse argument about four or five disputed internal matters, most of them old news by now. Two of the issues involve matters of principle concerning funding-- whether or not to sign a Ford Foundation grant letter containing restrictions that would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment if the government imposed them, and whether to agree as a condition of accepting funds from the Combined Federal Campaign to check names against a government watch list. As I and all his supporters readily acknowledge, as he does himself, Anthony Romero's initial response to these two matters left a bit to be desired. It was several years ago, he was a relatively new executive director of a rapidly-growing organization, he had not sufficiently acclimated himself to the complex governance structure of the ACLU, he lacked sufficient corporate legal advice (a gap that has now been corrected), and he may have been slow to admit his mistakes at first. That said, the ACLU had a serious policy debate about the Ford restrictions (in which strong civil libertarians weighed in on both sides of the issue), and ended up turning town the Ford Foundation money (which, by the way, virtually every other leading civil rights and social justice organization has continued to accept, signing the restrictions, so I suppose we can look forward to campaigns to "save" them, too, once Glasser and others are finished saving the ACLU) and sued the CFC. Much is made of Romero's supposed advice to the Ford Foundation -- which he worked for before joining the ACLU -- to "parrot" the Patriot Act in its funding guidelines, as if that was some kind of smoking gun, when in fact he was advising them to go no further than the law required.

On the Combined Federal Campaign, apparently Romero thought at first that since the ACLU wouldn't knowingly employ individuals on government "terrorist" lists, no additional steps beyond the normal ACLU hiring process were necessary. That turned out to be incorrect as a matter of law and policy. So the ACLU led the lawsuit against the CFC restrictions, resulting in an agreement that names don't have to be checked against the list -- the position Anthony Romero took from the beginning.

As a result of the principled stands the ACLU has taken on both these issues, it has forfeited millions of dollars in funding at a time when it is desperately needed. If I'd been on the ACLU board, I would probably have urged rejection of the funds from the start, and I might even have been critical of the ACLU leadership's initial handling of the matters. But no fair review of the overall record on these and other issues justifies a call for removing that leadership, which in countless ways has been principled, vigorous and effective.

Another big point of contention by the Saviors is a matter involving the Attorney General of New York State. Apparently the ACLU's outside website vendor mistakenly made some donor information public -- a mistake even the critics concede was inadvertent and beyond the staff's control. After the investigation, the ACLU paid a fine, which the vendor reimbursed, and entered into an agreement with the Attorney General called an Assurance of Discontinuance. This agreement was supposed to be made public to Board members, but the ACLU management misinterpreted it to mean only those board members "having any responsibility with respect to the subject matter of this assurance." So only a few board members were informed within the deadline. When this mistake was uncovered, the whole board was informed.

Do you find this troubling? Do you think it justifies a campaign to dislodge the top leaders of the ACLU? I don't. But Glasser and others treat it like Watergate. What's missing, of course, beyond the relative triviality of the error, is a motive -- the conduct fined by the Attorney General involved an honest mistake by an outside vendor that didn't reflect poorly on Romero or his staff in any way.

By the way, there's another donor "privacy" issue involving the segmenting of donor lists, a practice virtually all effective fundraising organizations engage in. The New York Times devoted an entire article to this, and Wendy Kaminer of the Savior group has treated it as some kind of scandal, but you don't find any references to it in Ira Glasser's cris de coeur about why he has emerged from retirement to attempt the ouster of his successor. Perhaps it's because those practices were initiated during Glasser's tenure.

The final set of issues -- and this really is the limit of the "case" for a public campaign to remove the ACLU's leaders in the middle of a civil liberties war -- involves alleged efforts to suppress the expression of dissenting board members: a policy proposal to restrict board members' speaking to the press about internal ACLU matters and the "purging" of board critics. I addressed these in my earlier post and see no need to revisit them.

The issue is not whether Anthony Romero and some ACLU leaders made mistakes. At various points, as in any organization -- as in Glasser's tenure and that of all directors before him, they did. It is whether the ACLU's governance system corrected those mistakes and why, long after the fact, it is thought by Ira Glasser and some others to need "saving."

I am livid at the distractions these attacks have presented for the ACLU and its leadership. I resent the time that I and others have had to take to counter the attacks on the ACLU leadership when the organization has effective mechanisms in place for dealing with alleged violations of policy. It's quite troubling to me that Ira Glasser, who I have known and admired for many years, and once worked for, has taken the destructive course that he has. Many others who were once his friends and admirers have theories about why he has done this, but armchair psychoanalysis and investigative journalism is not my forte. I'll leave that to others. I can only shake my head, originally in sorrow, increasingly in anger.

At various times in the ACLU's past when some members have been unhappy with its course -- though usually, in the past, it has been about what they viewed as a public breach of principle or shift in direction, not an internal lapse -- they've taken to the ACLU's quite democratic system to make their case and seek change. After the New York Civil Liberties Union riled the teachers' union in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville case in 1968, an opposition slate -- opposing then-NYCLU leaders Aryeh Neier and yes, Ira Glasser -- ran against the board leadership for several years, failed to win, and eventually faded away.

In similar intense controversies over the leadership of the few other national membership organizations with democratic voting, the Sierra Club and Amnesty International, that's how the critics went about seeking change. But not the saviors of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose position was resoundingly rejected when advanced through available institutional mechanisms, and who have accordingly chosen to harm the organization with the public and with donors at a time when its work is more important than ever.

Let's be clear about this: in the several years of controversies sparked by a few dissident members of the ACLU board, no candidate has emerged to run in the annual elections against the President who is both explicitly and implicitly an object of the Save the ACLU campaign, Nadine Strossen. In all her years as President, including the last five, only a single vote has even been cast against her. She just won re-election for a sixteenth term as President, and in the 2004 national board election participated in by 1,500 affiliate and national board members, in the middle of the assaults that Glasser and other have waged, she placed first for another three-year board term. (So, for that matter, did a leading Executive Committee supporter of the current leadership, Susan Herman, just last month.) No dissident has won a new seat on the Executive Committee, and several of the most prominent critics have in fact been defeated.

Ira Glasser knows very well how to change the course of ACLU policy, through affiliate board, national board and national executive committee elections -- he worked at it for years and was indeed a past master of the ACLU's political arts. When in his 23 years as ACLU director, he couldn't be seen as publicly advocating the defeat of a troublesome board or executive committee member -- including, strangely, at least one of his allies today -- I was happy to be his agent during my time on the Board and Executive Committee, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But Glasser hasn't even attempted that available and legitimate course today, preferring to grandstand in the press, spend hours calling ACLU donors to urge them to suspend support, and ask for Lincoln-Douglas style debates with the successor he once anointed, and who then ran afoul of him by changing some of his management and personnel decisions.

It's with great reluctance and regret that I must put this in personal terms. Although we've had a few personal and social exchanges in the last few years, Ira hasn't reached out to me to discuss his current campaign, or I would have been happy to say all this and more in person. But it has to be said, since with all respect to others involved, there would not even be a shred of credibility to "Save the ACLU" without the participation of Ira Glasser. I am sure he has persuaded himself he is acting on high principle. I hope he still has a few good friends around to tell him what so many are saying: this is no way to end a distinguished career. Enough is enough.