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Anthony D. Romero, a former public-interest attorney, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the ACLU's sixth executive director, and the first Latino and openly[…]

ACLU Director Anthony Romero explains how the ACLU has evolved over the years, and describes the challenges and rewards of leading such a unique group.

Question: How has the ACLU changed its outlook and positions over the years?

Anthony Romero: The ACLU is almost 90 years old. We have to evolve to a different set of circumstances. We have to understand how things are panning out. Sometimes we’ve made mistakes. There have been enormous debates in the ACLU during World War II around Japanese-American interment. There were groups of libertarians who thought that we ought to give FDR the benefit of the doubt; that it was necessary to secure the West Coast, and therefore intern Japanese-Americans. But fortunately there were other groups of civil libertarians who said, “No way. We can never abide that.” Our Northern California offices broke rank with some of the leaders in the national office and brought the Korematsu case, the Supreme Court case that we filed in 1941 and lost in 1944, where the constitutionality of Japanese-Americans being interned was upheld by Supreme Court, and there was some 50 years until we got reparation for Japanese-Americans.

The ALCU itself has not always been on the rights side of issues. In the 1950’s we had a very difficult period where our leadership got too cozy with Hoover’s FBI: we were giving them minutes of our meetings, we tried so hard to show him that we weren’t communists, and we expelled a couple of communists who were in the ranks, above the board and the staff of the ACLU.

As we look back as an organization, I think that those were some of the saddest moments in our organization’s history. That is good, as we can point to the interned Japanese-Americans, the moments when we were falling prey to the red scare of the 1950’s—part of what we learned from that, what we continue to learn, is the need to stand up to these abuses of power no matter who is President, no matter how popular, no matter how well liked, no matter what the challenges we confront in a particular context. Whenever we begin to think in ways like, “Well, maybe we should just negotiate and compromise, find some core issues and some core values that ought not to be compromised.”—that’s when we get into perilous terrain.

Question: What is a specific issue the ACLU has changed its stance on?

Anothony Romero:  At one point the ACLU had a policy of opposing metal detectors in airports: it was an absolutist approach to the fact that that was an unreasonable search and seizure. Over the years and as we got to understand better the terrorist threat that is present at airports in particular, we changed our policy and we said, “Look, the most important thing is to make this as least intrusive as possible.”

A metal detector is really different than strip searching someone at the airport, so we can live with a metal detector—we won’t live with strip searching all airport passengers, and part of what we’ve had to do, as any organization must do, is adapt and change with the times, but keep an eye on core principles and keep asking ourselves the question, “Are we not giving up the ghost when it comes to really important values?” I think, the way we comported ourselves , and the vigor of our descent in the initial aftermath of 9/11 where President Bush began to take more and more law enforcement powers, we were a lone voice.

Question: How did the ACLU change after 9/11?

Anothony Romero: I started work on September 4th, 2001. And I thought, as the first person to come into ACLU in over 40 years from outside the organization, that one of my primary goals would be to help to revivify a concern for civil liberties. When I was interviewing for this job, I was 35 years old. A lot of my contemporaries and friends, said, “It’s a wonderful organization but perhaps it’s time has come and gone,” that it didn’t seem this organization was about the current struggles for civil liberties and civil rights, and that much of the concerns I had coming in would be how to bring up a new generation of civil libertarians, to show that these issues are not the issues that our parents or grandparents fought for, but are issues for us and our subsequent generations.

Lo and behold, the week later, with the events of September 11th—that initial task, which I really haven’t wrapped my mind around—it became much easier to do. It was clear that the civil liberties issues that we were going to be confronting in the aftermath of 9/11 would be questions for us and for our subsequent generations, that the war on terror would unleash an enormous assault in civil liberties just like we had seen in the second World War, during the Vietnam War, and other periods where nations tried and had difficulties with national security or when there were questions around terrorism within the United States. We knew we’d be on the frontlines.

Who knew that we would be exactly as challenged as we were under the Bush years? Perhaps it was a bit of optimism, a bit of idealism; I was thinking that our elected officials and our appointed officials would have learned the mistakes of the past. But what we endured under eight years of George Bush was absolutely breathtaking. No one would have ever had imagined that we would be detaining individuals, American citizens apprehended on American soil, without charge or without access to lawyers. It was unfathomable to think that America, which always been the champion of human rights and it always denounced torture and abuse in dictatorships in totalitarian regimes, would ourselves become the torturers. It was unthinkable that the president would act without the approval of Congress or without going to any federal court will begin and announce programs on the activities and communications of law abiding Americans.

So we saw all of this at a very fast clip over the last eight years, and the clean-up we now confront with President Obama as president of the American people and the members of Congress, is like taking out the garbage. It’s not like vacating Bush’s cronies—getting rid of the Ashcrofts and Gonzales and Rumsfelds, and Cheneys of the world—this is much more akin to cleaning up a toxic waste dump; what they’ve done to the rule of law has been so severe and so systemic that it will take us years, if not generations, to fully recover our moral standing at home and abroad.

Question: What are the managerial challenges in running a passionate group like the ACLU?

Anthony Romero: They take authority very easily. They take instructions and edicts from on high, very easily, very simply. The ACLUs beauty is the fact that we question authority: we question the government, we question President Bush, we question President Obama, they question it of me, I question if of the board, and it is a wonderful, dynamic—sometimes messy, sometimes cranky, sometimes process-oriented but we would never have it any other way.

Part of what makes the ACLU so strong is in fact that we have diverse voices who often raise very different points of view. I talked about the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit earlier; well, we were able to glean over 130 thousand pages of documents from the U.S. government including the office of legal council memos from Addington and others.

That lawsuit was filed by two very junior attorneys who, when they first presented the idea of using the freedom of information act, a very senior supreme court litigator said to them, “I’ll give you one dollar for every page you get.” In most other places, like a normal law firm, those young lawyers would have been cowed, they would have kind of walked away into their offices with their tail between their legs and said, “O.k., this is futile.”

Luckily, because the people we attract are the kind of people that we want, they said, “To hell with it, we’re going to file anyway.” These two young lawyers ages put together probably don’t even get to sixty-some odd years old—which is probably the age of the person who said they’ll never get the documents from the government—and they have literally changed the face of American history. If they had not persevered and questioned the authority within the ACLU, we wouldn’t have the office of legal council memos, we wouldn’t know about the rampant, torture and abuse that happened at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. We wouldn’t know how we authorized the use of insects on detainees, and putting them on a cramped box for 18 hours or submerging them in 40-degree water for 20 minutes or 60 degree water for an hour. We wouldn’t know all those facts; so, it’s the ability to raise questions, to not be afraid of debate, to not be afraid of differences in opinion. Sometimes it can get a little messy and I think frankly, that’s sign of a healthy, wonderful organization that will continue to grow.

Recorded on: July 20, 2009