The Outsider

After Princeton, Romero decamped to Stanford Law School. Now his summers were occupied by internships. He worked on human rights cases in Mexico City, refugee and immigration cases in San Francisco, and finally assisted anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang in Guatemala City. For two weeks in the summer of 1990 Romero traveled with Mack Chang, researching government massacres of indigenous villages starting in the 1960s. Shortly after Romero left she was murdered in front of her office, stabbed 27 times by members of a death squad.

"Because of that, I never really had much tolerance for the complaining we sometimes do," Romero says. "When public interest lawyers talk about the long hours and low pay, I remind them that in other countries people who do our sort of work risk their lives."

His final internship, a semester of his third year of law school, was at Harlem Legal Services helping low-income tenants fight evictions. "I loved it," Romero says. "We went to court every day. With every case I kept someone from being homeless, by any means necessary. That wasn't abstract."

From Manhattan's grimy housing courts he went first to the Rockefeller Foundation, then to the Ford Foundation's magnificent glass box near United Nations headquarters. During his nine years at the Ford Foundation he became a human rights program officer, and later a director. In 2001 Romero was recruited by a search firm to replace Glasser, who had been the ACLU's executive director since 1978.

It's worth recalling the Bush administration's rapid response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. First came the massive USA Patriot Act of 2001, passed by Congress and signed into law just six weeks after the fact. The bill made a number of changes to US law, amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act. Among other things, it authorized "sneak and peek" searches of homes and businesses by law enforcement; expanded access to telephone, email, library, medical, and financial records; and allowed for the indefinite detention of immigrants. But the country was so gripped by fear that the Senate passed the bill with just one dissenting vote — by Wisconsin's Senator Russ Feingold. In the House, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland was one of the few to dare speak against it.

At the same time, the DOJ began processing suspected domestic terrorists. Attorney General John Ashcroft periodically announced the total number of prisoners — by November 2001, the government had detained 1,147 men, mostly Arabs and South Asians. The government reported that it sought "voluntary interviews" with a further 19,000 individuals. The next month, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel advised the White House that the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was outside the jurisdiction of both countries. It was, the Justice Department contended, a place where habeas corpus did not apply.

Hooded and shackled detainees from the battlefields of Afghanistan soon began to arrive at Guantanamo Bay. Later would come revelations of extraordinary renditions, in which the CIA kidnapped and oversaw the torture of foreign nationals. The war on terror was running at full tilt.

And at the ACLU? In many ways the organization was disoriented and unprepared. It didn't even have a formal project on national security law. Beginning in the 1970s the national office formed a cluster of attorneys and staff to address the intersection of American foreign policy, human rights, and domestic civil liberties. But that unit was spun off into a separate organization, the Center for National Security Studies. During the late 1980s and 1990s the ACLU was heavily focused on domestic civil liberties such as free speech, voting rights, abortion rights, the war on drugs, and prison conditions.

When he arrived, Romero says, "I didn't know the national security issues. I didn't even know what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was." But he quickly got up to speed, rallied his stunned and somewhat frightened staff, and mounted a counterattack.

The first targets in the sites of the national office were provisions of the USA Patriot Act and Attorney General Ashcroft's roundup and detention of immigrants. Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, and torture were, at first, either too hot or too undocumented to handle. And in some instances, important people within the ACLU were intimidated.

"I had people on my board and some big donors say, 'Guantanamo isn't about American civil liberties. These people aren't citizens, and they're not in the US' " Romero recalls. "A few even said, 'These are the worst of the worst. My funders, my board, will never support this.' "

Romero launched the National Security Project, reassigning people from other practice areas and providing funds as they became available. In the process the national office trained a group of aggressive and creative young litigators who worked closely with the regional affiliates and other civil liberties groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

The National Security Project has a flexible structure. Sometimes it assists with lawsuits brought by the affiliates; other times it files cases as lead counsel. Project lawyers coordinate strategy and review briefs with the affiliates by phone or email.

Jameel Jaffer, a Canadian with brooding, movie-star looks and a gentlemanly manner, heads the project. His family ties in the South Asian diaspora gave him special insight into the anti-Muslim xenophobia that swept the nation after 9/11. "During Ashcroft's early immigration roundups, I'd interview detainees getting deported on technicalities, and I'm thinking, 'These guys remind me of my uncle,' " Jaffer says.

Other members of the group included Amrit Singh, the highly educated daughter of India's prime minister who worked at the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project; California lawyer Ben Wizner; and Steven Watt, a Brit with the ACLU's Human Rights Program who previously did work in Africa and the Solomon Islands.

By filing FOIA lawsuits, this crew of young Turks extracted more than 100,000 pages of government documents — a virtual secret history of the Bush administration's war on terror. To date the documents include: the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel memos authorizing the CIA to use "enhanced interrogation"; proof of abuse and, in several cases, details about the deaths of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay; proof that psychologists participated in abusive interrogations; and evidence that officials covered up many of the abuses.

In an interview last year, Wizner condemned the Obama administration's reversal on revealing CIA photographs of detainee abuse that occurred prior to his taking office. "The president said that these were 'rare and isolated instances' and that, where appropriate, the perpetrators had been punished," Wizner said. "Both of those statements are untrue. We know that the abuses that were documented at Abu Ghraib were routine — not an aberration. ... And we know that the highest-level official to face prosecution was a lieutenant colonel, even though the abusive interrogation tactics were approved at the highest levels of the Department of Defense and civilian leadership."

The National Security Project also produced a number of groundbreaking lawsuits challenging various strategies of the war on terror. In all of this, Romero provided the institutional backbone. As Jaffer explains, "Never having been a litigator, Anthony tends to go large, see big, and not worry about making bad law or getting tied up in legal precedent. He sees issues such as private contractors making money by facilitating torture, and he wants to stop it."

Romero does admit to making some mistakes during the early years of his tenure. In what is now an infamous internal fight at the national office, a faction of the board exposed in 2004 what it considered a series of ethical violations by Romero. Acrimony exploded when it emerged that he had signed — after advising on the language — a grant acceptance letter to the Ford Foundation in which he agreed the ACLU would "not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state." To dissidents on the board — and even to some of Romero's allies — the pledge smacked of McCarthyism.

Tags: 9/11, aclu, american civil liberties union, anthony romero, bush, civil liberties, guantanamo bay, human rights, law, obama, rendition, war on terror

    • Christian Parenti
    • Christian Parenti is an award-winning journalist and author. A contributing editor at The Nation, he has reported extensively from the Middle East, Latin America and Africa and his articles have appeared in PlayboyMother JonesThe London Review of Books, Salon and The...

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