Last September a group of civil libertarians launched a website, savetheaclu.org, on which they declared: “We come together now, reluctantly but resolutely, not to injure the ACLU but to restore its integrity.” Only a “change in leadership,” they insisted, “will preserve the ACLU.” That website, and those words, marked a new phase in a lengthy campaign to unseat Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director. The website contained a surprise: a pithy and combative declaration from Romero’s retired predecessor, Ira Glasser, who recruited Romero for the top job six years earlier.
Tension at the upper echelons of the ACLU has been evident for some time. On April 22 of last year, the ACLU national board converged on the Princeton Club in Manhattan for its quarterly meeting. A few weeks earlier, in an interview with the conservative New York Sun, board member Wendy Kaminer had criticized a statement by the ACLU’s Washington legislative director. What Kaminer did was hardly unusual: For more than two years she has been an indefatigable critic of the ACLU leadership.
The principal target of her criticism–Anthony Romero–had apparently reached his breaking point. Halfway through the meeting he denounced Kaminer for “attacking his staff” in the Sun. While he was speaking, one board member, Alison Steiner, made a facial expression Romero didn’t appreciate. Kaminer recalls, “Anthony strides down from the podium, he points at Alison, and essentially orders her out of the room.” Romero berated Steiner in the hallway, leaving her shaken. Later in the meeting, South Carolina representative David Kennison belatedly rose to defend Kaminer, after which Romero asked Kennison, too, to step outside. Kennison later claimed that Romero told him that he would “never” apologize to Kaminer, and that he was accumulating a “thick file on her.” “I got frustrated and lost my temper,” Romero subsequently told the New York Times. “I do not have a file on Wendy.”
In late October a second website, voicesfortheaclu.org, was launched by supporters of Romero. That site was spearheaded by some prominent ACLU veterans, including Aryeh Neier, Gara LaMarche and Norman Dorsen, who declared themselves “dismayed by the ongoing attacks on the ACLU and its leadership” and the “disproportionate and distorted coverage…in some quarters of the press.” Since 2004, Stephanie Strom, who covers philanthropy and nonprofits for the New York Times, has written a dozen stories about internal controversies at the ACLU, stories that have infuriated Romero and many of his colleagues at the organization.
It’s a bad time for civil liberties, a time of “extraordinary rendition,” secret deportations, dubious military trials, NSA surveillance, the harassment of librarians and other infringements. The ACLU, founded in 1920, is both a crucial barrier against these threats to our freedom and the best-known defender of the Constitution. But lately it has also become an organization engulfed by a tumultuous family feud, one in which emotions are raw on all sides. Oddly, it’s not a dispute about the ACLU’s overall performance in the five years since Romero took over. To varying degrees, both sides agree that the ACLU’s day-to-day work has been superb under Romero. On savetheaclu.org, Kaminer and Glasser wrote that the “ACLU continues to do a great deal of excellent, important work.” Romero’s supporters argue the point with greater emphasis and feeling. “The ACLU has never performed better,” says Burt Neuborne, a former ACLU legal director who is now a law professor at New York University. “If you drew up a blueprint for a machine to protect civil liberties, you’d literally copy the existing ACLU.”