A few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11, Anthony D. Romero's 19th-floor corner office commands a view of the New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty. All around us stand the landmarks of Manhattan's financial power. From this perch Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, runs the nation's premiere civil rights organization. Having never been a litigator, he is not so much the ACLU's lawyer-in-chief as its CEO: lead fund-raiser, spokesman, coordinator, strategist, and exhorter.
Like President Barack Obama, Romero is a somewhat closeted smoker, and he wears a nicotine patch. When it is time for him to take a cigarette break on the ground-floor plaza, I ask him to assess Obama's first year in office. "I am still hopeful," Romero says. "Obama knows our issues and our values. Somewhere deep inside, he gets it. But there's a lot of inertia in government — there need to be countervailing forces. Due to our structure and our staff, we're poised to really push."
Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DOJ) does not like being pushed. Nor has President Obama turned out to be the gale of fresh air that many had hoped for. In its first year the Obama team has done a lot of backsliding on civil liberties. It hasn't closed the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, or ended the use of military commissions for criminal trials. It still endorses "extraordinary rendition" to send detainees overseas for interrogation. And it waffled and then refused to release photos of detainees held in US custody. According to people who saw those photos, the twisted images constituted evidence that could be used to prosecute torturers and the policy-makers whose orders they followed.
In addition, the DOJ continues to invoke a sweeping interpretation of the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits by torture survivors and victims of a massive government-spying program, refusing to release documents revealing the alleged complicity of the telecommunications companies in warrantless data mining. (See "Challenging the State Secrets Privilege," next page.)
Through it all the ACLU has been pushing for greater transparency and tighter limits on executive power. During the period of transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, the ACLU's national office kept filing cases and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, pursuing appeals, demanding policy changes, and even suing the executive branch.
On a few occasions Romero and others in the ACLU's national office met top Obama officials. Early on, a group of civil liberties leaders that included Romero talked privately with the president. At one such event, an ACLU attorney met with David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, and offered a few words of praise for initial attempts to roll back policies inherited from the Bush years. Axelrod, the attorney says, was visibly irritated, saying, "You have no idea the amount of shit we've been getting!" His message: Stop harassing the new administration and get on board.
We now know that the Department of Defense and the CIA were resisting policy changes. Last year seven former CIA directors sent an extraordinary open letter to Obama urging him to stop Attorney General Eric Holder from beginning a criminal investigation of agency interrogators who had "acted beyond their existing legal authorities."
The ACLU, however, never skipped a beat. Its National Security Project, organized by Romero in the days after 9/11, doggedly pursued litigation challenging what it views as abuses of state power. How and why the ACLU remains so focused has a lot to do with Anthony Romero's personal journey from way uptown, in the other New York City, to a corner office amid the glass towers downtown.
If Romero's arrival at the national office had been the opening scenes of a Hollywood movie, you would have rolled your eyes at the setup. On September 4, 2001, Romero became executive director of an institution synonymous with defense of the Bill of Rights. Comprised of a national headquarters and 53 highly independent local affiliates, the ACLU is a behemoth. Atop it sits the National Board — 81 barons of civil liberties who provide oversight. They include litigators, professors, intellectuals, and philanthropists famously known to be intelligent, egocentric, and pugnacious.
By contrast, Romero in 2001 was practically a kid: 35 years old, energetic and skinny, with faint acne scars. Squint your eyes slightly and he still looks to be about 19. In an organization heavily represented by patrician WASPs and Jews, Romero was an outsider from a working-class Puerto Rican family. And he is openly gay. Despite support from outgoing executive director Ira Glasser, Romero was eyed with suspicion by some of the Old Guard. The kid seemed too soft, not ready for the hurly burly of the national office.
One week after Romero arrived, hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people. The Bush administration quickly sealed the nation's borders. Armed troops patrolled the streets. The president announced that America was in a war on terror, and he invoked executive war powers to craft a coordinated worldwide response.
With ash still in the air at the national office, the ACLU's board could see that the new kid's job had just gotten a lot harder. How Romero reacted in the weeks ahead would define not only the organization but also the future of civil liberties in the United States.
Romero had come a long way to head the ACLU — socially if not geographically. Born in the Bronx in 1965, he was raised in the Randle Avenue Castle Hill projects during the height of the urban crisis in the 1970s. At the time, New York was "Fear City." Unemployment, budget cuts in the face of the city's near-bankruptcy, violence, and arson turned the South Bronx into a hellhole. It was so out of control that sports announcer Howard Cosell reportedly interrupted himself during a broadcast of the 1977 World Series to declare, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen; the Bronx is burning."
"It was an awful place," Romero says as we sip coffee at his conference table. "Often there was no heat, the elevators didn't work. There was crime, kids experimenting with drugs. I don't have many fond memories of the projects. Except for the family life inside them." He pauses and adds: "Sonia Sotomayor was raised not far away. So there must have been something in the lead paint."
Romero's father, Demetrio "Mecho" Romero, had completed only a third-grade education. His mother, Coralie, never finished high school. A photo of Mecho hangs behind Romero's desk; in it, his dad is sitting on a piano, drinking a glass of scotch, and smoking a cigarette. For 39 years Mecho worked at the Warwick New York Hotel, a fancy, old-school Midtown establishment. It was from his father that Anthony received his first lesson in the necessity of fighting for one's rights.
"My father applied to be a waiter and was told his English wasn't good enough," Romero says. "He was a little bit frustrated. The other waiters spoke English as bad as his. There was a Greek guy, and some Eastern Europeans. But they were white. So my father went to the union, and he won. He became a waiter, and his pay went up. After that, our lives changed. Everything got better."
The Romeros — grandmother, father, mother, sister, and Anthony — moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Passaic County, New Jersey. Anthony slept on the couch and attended the local high school. "My mom got a new living room set, my dad got a car — a 1968 Pontiac Tempest. Beautiful car," says Romero, his Bronx accent thickening slightly. "And I got an eight-track. Life was good."
Romero excelled in high school and soon was sorting through recruitment letters from the best universities. He says he chose Princeton because it was located out in the country. "It seemed the furthest away from the South Bronx. No way you could have got me to Columbia."
Princeton brought new lessons about how America works. The class privileges of many students shocked Romero. "I had no idea people paid to go to high school," he says. "Where I was raised, it was public high or parochial. Now people asked, 'Where'd you prep?' "
During vacations he worked with his father at the Warwick.