New York City

When it comes to defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the nonpartisan ACLU is just as happy to work with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild as with Bob Barr and the American Conservative Union. But the ACLU’s “strange bedfellows” alliance with conservatives against renewal of controversial Patriot Act provisions has not, as David Cole suggests, submerged our broader reform agenda [“The Missing Patriot Debate,” May 30]. In fact, our association with conservative groups has triggered a groundswell of debate across the political spectrum on permanent Patriot Act provisions and other government policies that roll back rights.

Cole quite rightly champions the importance of these issues, and we applaud his legal work on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, a group that has been prevented from providing human rights training and advice to groups designated as “terrorist” under the Patriot Act. That is why the ACLU filed a brief in support of his case on May 16, and testified in Congress on the matter one week earlier.

Cole also rightly deplores the government’s use of Patriot Act immigration provisions to revoke the visas of Tariq Ramadan and Dora Maria Tellez. We agree–and recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of the government’s practice of excluding scholars and other prominent people from the United States because of their political views.

While our legislative staff has been busy lobbying against reauthorization of Patriot Act Section 215 (“library records”) and Section 218 (“secret searches”) and other provisions, our lawyers have been just as busy in the courts. Our challenge to National Security Letters (Section 505) resulted in the invalidation of one of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. Cole might also remember the ACLU litigation challenging the secret deportation hearings of hundreds if not thousands of immigrants. Sadly, the Supreme Court chose not to review those ACLU cases, just as the Court also refused to hear our challenge of the increased use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act powers in the government’s war on terror.

As far as immigrant advocacy is concerned, we didn’t earn any brownie points with many conservatives when we sent observers to Arizona to monitor the Minuteman Project’s border watch program, or when we advocated strenuously against the anti-immigrant provisions of the REAL ID bill, or when we opposed the fingerprinting and photographing of young Muslims. We’ve also actively opposed the incommunicado detention of so-called “enemy combatants,” “material witness” detentions, ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims, computer data mining and FBI infiltration of public meetings.

The ACLU was deeply involved in legal and public education work on behalf of immigrants detained and deported after 9/11; we played a large role in curbing data mining and surveillance programs like MATRIX, Total Information Awareness and TIPS; we mobilized to provide legal advice to the thousands of immigrants rounded up under the “special registration” program; and we have distributed tens of thousands of our “Know Your Rights” materials for immigrants in seven languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi and Somali.

There is no question that the ACLU shares Cole’s concerns about the government crackdown on dissent. We launched a major campaign last year to expose and prevent FBI spying on people simply for speaking out or practicing their faith. We have filed FOIA requests in more than a dozen states, and obtained evidence that confirms the FBI and local police are spying on political, environmental, antiwar and faith-based groups. We are also representing a former FBI employee and other government whistleblowers. Many of these efforts have made headline news.

Finally, Cole’s exhortation to “emphasize a human rights approach” is precisely what the ACLU has been doing for the past three years. It was the ACLU that secured more than 35,000 pages of documents in litigation against the government demonstrating that the torture and abuse of detainees were systemic. In the confirmation process of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the ACLU was vigorous in raising questions about his role in the so-called Torture Memos. With Human Rights First, we sued Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other top officials over torture and abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Conservatives understand that the ACLU is a principled organization, and they don’t seem concerned that our “liberal” views will rub off on them. Similarly, liberals (and Nation readers) shouldn’t worry that our conservative bedfellows will hog all the blankets. Or perhaps, rather than being effective, liberals prefer being left out in the cold.

ANTHONY D. ROMERO
Executive director, ACLU


Washington, DC

While David Cole is right that much of the Patriot Act debate in Congress is focused on marginal details, many civil liberties supporters are working to question the government’s powers outside the Patriot Act and to protect the rights of noncitizens.

Cole himself testified about the unconstitutional immigration provisions in the Patriot Act. My organization, the lead party in the lawsuit challenging the post-9/11 detentions of hundreds of innocent people, testified about surveillance powers outside the Patriot Act. We urged Congress to limit the powers enacted in 1994, which allow permanently secret national security searches of homes, and to amend one of the noncontroversial parts of the Patriot Act, which permits the CIA to establish a database on everyone in the United States. We persuaded the American Bar Association to include the post-9/11 detentions in its website, www.patriotdebates.com.

More than 100 civil rights groups–including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Council of La Raza and Human Rights Watch–have urged Congress to examine the post-9/11 civil liberties abuses outside the Patriot Act, especially those targeted against immigrants and minorities. Some, including Senator Patrick Leahy and Representatives Howard Berman and William Delahunt, have pushed for a broader debate. With the support of these groups, they and other members have introduced legislation that would restore some part of our civil liberties by prohibiting secret immigration hearings and restricting the unfair jailing of immigrants suspected of being out of status.

This effort built on and is sustained by the work of the hundreds of communities that have condemned all the civil liberties abuses in anti-Patriot Act resolutions. Now a national network organized as the Rights Working Group is coming together to protect the due process, free speech and privacy rights of everyone in the country. The movement includes the conservative libertarians who believe that the Constitution is for everyone, not just citizens, to restore a principle still embraced by the majority of Americans: No one should be unfairly jailed or deported, citizen or no. The Patriot debates are just the beginning.

KATE MARTIN, director
Center for National Security Studies


COLE REPLIES

Washington, DC

Let me begin by saying that I have never been more proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU than in the post-9/11 era. I have considered it an honor to work alongside ACLU lawyers on a wide range of civil liberties cases and battles. To cite only one example, the ACLU of Southern California is co-counsel with me in the case of Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh, two longtime permanent-resident immigrants facing deportation under the Patriot Act for distributing literature and raising charitable funds in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In speeches around the country, I regularly cite the ACLU’s tremendous post-9/11 work, along with the work of many other civil rights and human rights groups, as a reason for hope in an otherwise dispiriting time. And I have gladly spoken at ACLU fundraisers from New Jersey to New Mexico.

All of which makes me disappointed that the ACLU’s executive director perceived my piece as an attack on the ACLU itself. The subject of my article was not the ACLU but the scope of the Patriot Act debate. Its title was “The Missing Patriot Debate,” not “What’s Wrong With the ACLU.” My point was that in today’s climate, when liberals enter into coalitions with conservatives on civil liberties issues, as has happened on the Patriot Act, one unfortunate side effect is that we move forward only on issues that the conservatives also care about. This is a criticism of a phenomenon, not an organization.

On that matter, not addressed in Anthony Romero’s letter, I stand my ground. The “libraries” provision, roving wiretaps and the sneak-and-peek authority are by no stretch of the imagination the worst aspects of the Patriot Act. Yet they have garnered virtually all the attention. The SAFE Act, the principal liberal-conservative coalition bill to amend the Patriot Act, would make important improvements in these measures, but it does not even touch the act’s more troubling provisions affecting immigration, guilt by association or the freezing of charities’ assets based on secret evidence–presumably because conservatives would not have signed on if it had.

Kate Martin, whose Center for National Security Studies has also played a critically important role in fighting for civil liberties since 9/11, correctly notes that liberals are not only working in alliance with conservatives on issues conservatives love but are also attempting to expand the debate to encompass the issues I underscored in my article. She is right, as is Romero, to stress the wide range of work being done. My point was not that liberal groups were not doing this work but that in the Patriot Act debate, that work has gone largely unnoticed. The Civil Liberties Restoration Act that Martin cites is a perfect example. It responds to the immigration abuses so prevalent in the aftermath of 9/11 and fully deserves support from all of us. But it is unlikely even to get a hearing in Congress. As always in a democracy, the voices of those without political power are much less likely to be heard. I consider it our responsibility as liberals and progressives to fight that tendency. The danger is that coalitions with conservatives may well reinforce the very tendency we need to be fighting against.

Coalition politics will always involve some compromises, deferring some items on a wish list in favor of concrete advances on others. I suggest, however, that we liberals might do better to seek support from the rest of the world by insisting on the protection of basic human rights rather than cutting inside-the-Beltway deals with conservatives. It is not a matter of wanting to be left out in the cold but of where one looks for one’s blankets.

DAVID COLE