We are, as a nation, about to experience the changing of two guards. First, Ira Glasser, having given a year’s notice, is stepping down after nearly a quarter-century as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “Liberty’s Law Firm” as they like to call it. Second, Louis Freeh is leaving the FBI after serving eight years of a ten-year term as director.
There is, of course, a built-in tension between an organization dedicated to protecting and expanding rights, like the ACLU, and an institution like the FBI, too often bent on invading them. Thus when Director Freeh began agitating for the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, providing for the placement of surveillance-friendly equipment in all new telephones, it was Glasser who pointed out that it was like requiring builders to put microphones in buildings to make it easier for the cops to listen in.
Despite occasional differences over this and that, we will miss Ira’s energetic and articulate defense of free-speech values, his “First Amendment absolutism,” his stewardship of an organization dedicated to eternal verities in a postmodernist culture.
Freeh is a more problematic proposition. He came to the FBI after the bureau’s assault in April 1993 on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and he never fully cleared that air. His public laundering of differences with President Clinton and Attorney General Reno during the year of impeachment was troubling–the head of the nation’s secret police has too much behind-the-scenes power to play political-manipulation games without dangerous risks to democratic governance. Also troubling was his decision to leave office two years short of a term deliberately calculated to avoid changing FBI directors and Presidents simultaneously, the Congressional desire being to insulate the bureau from partisan politics.
We wish Ira well in his post-ACLU career; we wish his successor, Antonio Romero, good luck in keeping a fractious community coherent without sacrificing First Amendment principle. We also look to the ACLU to help define the qualities and criteria the Administration, Congress and the people should look for in Freeh’s successor. J. Edgar Hoover’s name and shadow still dominate and darken the FBI. It’s only because of organizations like the ACLU that his bureau did not do more damage.