Uncivil Libertarians

Ira Glasser is a fighter. He's been defending freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the right to due process for more than 30 years through his work with the American Civil Liberties Union, including 23 years as the head of the organization.

Of late, he sounds just as combative when he talks about his successor, Anthony D. Romero -- especially when the conversation veers toward Romero's views on the Patriot Act. "Anthony said that?" Glasser, 68, asks. His voice goes up a notch. And before anybody can clarify Romero's remarks about the Patriot Act, Glasser's off on a tear about his former protege.

"I feel that he's betrayed some core ACLU principles and it's a question of whether or not that's right," Glasser says. "He did stuff no executive director should ever do."

In August, Glasser signed a mission statement for a Save the ACLU Web site designed to protest Romero's leadership. The site, which was launched in September, as of press time has 613 "dissidents," as Glasser puts it. With references to "blacklists," "spying," and "informal campaigns to purge the ACLU of its internal critics," the site evokes Stalin, McCarthyism, and other civil-libertarian chambers of horrors. The home page displays photos of vintage antiwar activists, including one woman who's handing a flower to military police; protestors in braids and wire-rimmed glasses; and an older man with bushy eyebrows with (apparently) a policeman's hand clamped over his mouth. All of which illustrate the ACLU's previous work in upholding freedom of expression in the United States -- contrasted, presumably, with a more recent propensity toward "silencing dissent," as the Web site proclaims, within the organization.

The internal, though very public, fight could leave the casual observer with a major misimpression about how the ACLU is actually faring. Since Romero started his job as executive director on September 4, 2001, ACLU membership has increased 91 percent -- from 300,000 members to 573,000 members. The number of national staff positions has grown from 186 to 379, and net assets of the ACLU Foundation have increased from $122 million to $221 million -- an 81 percent jump.

The success of the organization hasn't been limited to membership or fund raising. ACLU lawyers have filled more than a dozen lawsuits against the Bush administration, one of which, ACLU v. NSA, successfully challenged the National Security Agency's warrant-less surveillance program. (Full disclosure: I'm a plaintiff.) In August, a federal judge, Anna Diggs Taylor, ruled the wiretapping program violated the constitution, and the government is now appealing the decision.

Much of the ACLU's growth and success reflects the increasing importance of civil liberties in a post–9-11 world. But Romero, who was Glasser's own candidate for the post, also deserves credit. By most accounts, Romero, 41, who was the first executive director in 39 years to be hired from outside the organization (he had worked for both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations), has used the managerial skills he honed in the foundation world to bring the ACLU into the 21st century.

That effort also may explain some of the hostility he's garnered from Glasser and other old-guard ACLU supporters, including famed civil-rights lawyer Norman Siegel and free-speech authority Nat Hentoff. Opponents say Romero has violated long-time principles of the ACLU, which have been all the more important in the post–9-11 climate. But on closer evaluation, their objections seem to be as much over style than over substance. They threaten to overshadow his accomplishments all the same.

***

At an October 16 ACLU luncheon event titled, "Torture, Secrecy, and Surveillance," Romero bantered with Joseph C. Wilson IV, husband of former CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame, in front of more than 700 ACLU members in a ballroom at the Washington Marriott. Romero is good at this kind of informal exchange. He listened attentively as Wilson described his battle with administration officials in recent months, suggesting that President Bush considers the Constitution to be nothing more than "a goddamned piece of paper." Romero nodded eagerly and leaned forward. "A piece of paper you can shred," he said. Then he pretended to hold up a sheet of paper and feed it into a shredder.

It was a playful gesture -- and a self-referential one. Less than a year after he took over his post, it was a paper shredder, Romero's somewhat impetuous approach, and his impatience with institutional tradition that first got him in trouble with the old-timers. The incident started when Romero and other members of the staff began destroying old résumés and debris lying around their offices in 2003. This might mean nothing in most offices, but at the ACLU, where the fight to prevent government shredding is a decades-old mandate, it was a major faux pas. Romero continued the practice for some time, and in 2005 a more public fight began. ACLU records manager Janet Linde said the practice of shredding papers without recording the destroyed documents violated an institutional policy, according to Stephanie Strom, a New York Times reporter, in a June 5, 2005, article, "Concerns Arise at A.C.L.U. Over Document Shredding."

Rather than suffer silently, though, Romero threw a "shred-in." This was typical of a man who had absorbed the biggest lessons of contemporary management theory: Be flexible; do things in a transparent manner; include your staff whenever possible. So Romero invited staffers into his office and shredded Strom's article as everyone ate Krispy Kreme doughnuts he'd brought in. "I was lifting morale, reminding everyone not to take people seriously," Romero explains during a break at the Washington conference. Clearly, a new era had arrived.

One of the first members of his Puerto Rican family to graduate from college, Romero studied international affairs at Princeton University and provided legal assistance to Spanish-speaking families facing eviction through a nonproflt organization, Harlem Legal Services, during his third year at Stanford Law School. He worked for nine years at the Ford Foundation, meeting with Glasser about ACLU programs and the grants they'd received for their work. Over dinner one evening in 2000, Glasser told Romero he was getting ready to retire and suggested he apply for the position of executive director.

"His first instinct was to feel overwhelmed by it all," says Glasser, who still speaks with affection about the man he's been publicly criticizing. "I spent a lot time convincing him he should throw his hat in the ring."

The ACLU's board of directors selects the organization's executive director, but Glasser says he groomed Romero for the position, meeting with him "for many dozens of hours," and helping him prepare for the interview. (Romero refused to discuss Glasser with me.) In many ways, it was an odd match. On core issues of individual rights and the protection of minorities, the two men have much in common. Still, as ACLU executive director, Glasser played basketball with the guys and took them out to ball games; Romero wears cufflinks and a unicorn tie, prides himself on his rack of lamb (seasoned with tarragon, rosemary, cracked white pepper, and "a little sea salt," he says), and wanted to cook for them. Glasser is often aggressive on the phone, hammering on points about civil liberties as he talks about the organization. Romero, also a stickler about details of ACLU positions, is more open to discussion. Paper-shredder jokes, talk-show coziness, staff meetings that emphasize an exchange of ideas, even the membership conference itself, have all been features of Romero's tenure at the ACLU.

Over the years, Romero had impressed many in progressive institutions with his commitment to civil liberties. Arnie Miller, a long-time ACLU member and a Boston-based executive recruiter for civil-rights organizations, remembers meeting him at La Guardia Airport in New York in 1991. "He told me about his father, who had recently died," recalls Miller. "He said his father had worked as a waiter at a hotel and that people used to call him, 'Chico.' Anthony said, 'My father wasn't a boy. He was a man.' Anthony is a guy who knows first-hand what discrimination is all about."

Romero received the overwhelming support of the ACLU board during its final selection process. In June 2001, several weeks before his retirement, Glasser gave a speech at a biannual meeting. "I literally bought a baton and handed it to [Romero] and said, 'This may be the last sport metaphor you ever see, and you may be happy to see it go,'" Glasser recalls. "The bottom line was, we couldn't have been closer."

Romero started his job at the ACLU one week before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Within hours, the ACLU started getting calls from journalists inquiring about civil liberties, and they have hardly let up since. "[Glasser] was on a baseball team that never made it to the playoffs," says Laura W. Murphy, the former director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington. "And right after he left, the team went to the World Series."

***

Some people didn't like the way the game was being played. By the fall of 2002, the paper-shredder controversy had begun. Then in 2003 there was another flap. This was the moment that ACLU member Wendy Kaminer, a Boston lawyer and writer who is now on the Save the ACLU team, realized things had gone wrong. She was at a June 2003 meeting of the board, an 83-member group comprising lawyers and other professionals from across the country, when Romero said he'd forgotten to inform the board about a December 2002 agreement he'd signed with the New York attorney general to settle a dispute over privacy issues.

Kaminer, speaking on the telephone from Boston, says she and her colleagues had no problem with Romero's settlement of the dispute. The disturbing thing, she says, was the way he had neglected to tell the board members about the agreement and then acted as though the lapse was unimportant. "It became apparent to us that he was not being honest," says Kaminer, who is a former American Prospect columnist and the wife of Woody Kaplan, a former real-estate developer and a major donor to the ACLU.

Even worse, Kaminer says, ACLU President Nadine Strossen and other board members -- all of whom are supposed to oversee the activities of the executive director -- didn't seem bothered. On July 11, 2003, Strossen sent Kaminer a "chirpy e-mail," as Kaminer describes it. "She said she just wanted to assure us Anthony was dealing with this issue in the same candid way he always did," says Kaminer. "It was obvious we did not have a president who had oversight. We said, 'Oh, shit. Now we're really in trouble.'"

As Kaminer sees it, the ACLU executive director should inform the board of agreements he's entered on behalf of the organization, seeking board members' counsel when it's appropriate -- and the ACLU president should work to ensure that the executive director communicates effectively with the board. But neither of those steps had been taken, Kaminer says.

Then, in 2004, a Ford Foundation executive asked Romero for his advice on dealing with government-recommended restrictions on grant recipients that would help ensure the money would not support terrorist activities. Almost any form of government restrictions on organizations make civil libertarians nervous. Yet Romero didn't exactly object. Instead, he recommended Ford Foundation executives mimic the language of the Patriot Act, and the Ford Foundation eventually included a provision for grant recipients to sign: "You agree that your organization will not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any state." In this way, Romero suggested, senior staff members could ward off accusations they were inadvertently supporting terrorists through their grants. "The Patriot Act is the law," explains Romero. "We can litigate against it. We can lobby against it. We can be vocal about it. But nonproflts are bound by the law."

Some ACLU members weren't pleased. "Because of the vagueness of the word, 'promote,' this new provision would have been an unconstitutional restriction on speech had it been promulgated by the government and not a private corporation," wrote Kaminer and Glasser in an essay, "The Facts of the Matter," posted on the Save the ACLU Web site. "He said the Ford Foundation should just parrot the Patriot Act," says Kaminer. "At the same time, he was raising money at the ACLU based on opposition to the Patriot Act."

In July and August 2004, Glasser e-mailed Romero, criticizing Romero for his Ford Foundation suggestions. Romero "was really angry and upset," recalls Glasser. "He kept responding that I was a father figure to him, and I said that was emotional blackmail. 'This is not a relational thing,' I said. 'I think you're doing grievous injury to the ACLU.'" Their e-mail exchange ended shortly afterward. So did their friendship. "We've seen each other since then," says Glasser. "We always sort of smile and act cordial. There's something almost phony about it."

ACLU board members discussed the Ford Foundation grant restrictions for hours at a July 2004 meeting. (Kaminer says it was four hours; Romero says it was nine.) ACLU leaders eventually turned down Ford Foundation grants to the ACLU worth close to $2 million, says Romero, which would have been used for national-security projects.

Still, the dissidents were not appeased. Over the past several months, Kaminer and other supporters of the Save the ACLU campaign have been writing a flurry of op-eds and online articles about the controversy. "During the past three years, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has made what many agree were serious mistakes, some reflecting insensitivity if not hostility to fundamental ACLU values, notably free speech," write Glasser and Kaminer in "The Facts of the Matter." "Board President Nadine Strossen and other members of the Executive Committee have not only failed to provide appropriate oversight of Romero; they have helped conceal or cover up his mistakes."

The ultimate aim of Save the ACLU is to oust Romero. To date, he retains the support of the staff, and the board has made no moves to get rid of him.

***

In some ways, the battle at the ACLU is business as usual. The famously combative organization was founded in 1920 to fight for individual rights and is known nearly as much for acrimonious infighting as for its battles against the government. On July 9, 1978, the late J. Anthony Lukas wrote a New York Times Magazine article, "The ACLU Against Itself," about conflict within the organization.

But this time, the battles seem especially pointed. The adversarial relationship between Glasser and Romero, for example -- and the way their conflict has spilled out repeatedly in the media -- is "highly unprecedented," says Gara LaMarche, 52, a vice president of George Soros' philanthropic organization, the New York–based Open Society Institute (OSI). In an organization like the ACLU, that's saying a lot.

The fight within the "boisterous -- sometimes messy -- ACLU family," as Romero calls it, is in part a reflection of the organization's growth. The expansion of the ACLU has meant more ambitious fund-raising efforts, reaching out to people and organizations beyond an immediate circle of friends and supporters of liberal organizations; formalized, organization-wide, goal-setting rather than relying on an ad-hoc approach to setting agendas for various departments; and a more inclusive organization that encourages outreach and membership growth. Romero's decision to hold annual membership meetings is part of this effort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, internal conflicts often accompany the organizational shifts. Clearly, the dispute over the Ford Foundation and other points of contention, including a decision not to abide by any government recommendations on screening employees for suspected terrorist affiliations, have focused on First Amendment issues. But "95 percent" of the disagreements -- whether they're about policy or management positions -- do not involve substantive issues, says the ACLU's former legislative director Murphy. "This is a place where people come to fight," explains LaMarche, only half-joking. (OSI, where LaMarche works, is a foundation of George Soros, and provides financial support for liberal organizations including The American Prospect and the ACLU.) "How do you argue in the ACLU?" he says. "You accuse your opponent of violating the Bill of Rights."

"Is it King Lear?" wonders Miller, the Boston-based executive recruiter, referring to Shakespeare's drama in which a father feels betrayed by his children. As Miller sees it, Romero has professionalized the organization. And Glasser can't let go. "I've watched a lot of transitions over these 30 years of recruiting -- some of them better than others," says Miller. "This one is pathetic."

"Ira needs to move on," says Murphy. "If he wanted to do something to make Karl Rove happy, he's doing it."

Meanwhile, Kaminer is working on a book about ethics entitled Worst Instincts. "I've been very much inspired by my experiences with the ACLU," she says, describing a "classic group pathology" she observed within the organization during the controversy over Romero's leadership.

Romero brushes aside questions about his relationship with Glasser. When asked what he's brought to the ACLU during his tenure, though, he breaks into a smile. "I've brought passion," says Romero. "I love life!"

"I always had a reputation of being a fighter," says Glasser. "But I hate this. Not only because of the sadness and tragedy of the relational stuff with Anthony but because both sides of the debate believe in good faith they have stood up for the ACLU they love. If I could press a button and none of it would have ever happened, nobody would be happier."

Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.

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