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For ACLU's Director Romero, Terrorism Fight Hurts Liberties


November 19, 2001
Copyright © 2001

NEW YORK -- In the lobby of a Madison Avenue building, visitors, one by one, face a video camera and state their names and that of the organization they represent.

When Anthony D. Romero's turn comes, he hesitates. "What are you going to do with this tape?" he asks. "We save it for three weeks," the guard replies. Mr. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is visiting a donor upstairs. He allows himself to be filmed. But once out of the guard's earshot, he shakes his head and calls it a "useless security measure."

While many Americans have been worrying that the world has become less safe since Sept. 11, Mr. Romero has been worrying about it becoming less free. Mr. Romero, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, distinguished himself as questioning and even argumentative at the age of six when he began sparring with the nuns who ran the Catholic school he attended. He later attended Princeton University and Stanford University's law school.

On Sept. 4, he took over leadership of the ACLU, the nation's largest group dedicated to protecting individual rights, from 23-year veteran Ira Glasser.

Seven days later, the world changed. Congress, despite vigorous opposition from the ACLU, hustled to pass a law granting authorities sweeping new powers to wiretap, search and to detain immigrants. Airports made plans to begin testing technology that compares facial features to computerized photos of suspected wrongdoers. And authorities began detaining Middle Eastern immigrants en masse under a veil of near-complete secrecy. Serious talk of a national identification card began.

Mr. Romero, 36 years old, suddenly found himself working nearly every waking hour to prevent what he views as a potentially disastrous backslide in personal privacy and freedom. "What we do now, and how we do it, will change American history," says Mr. Romero. "I don't feel I have the luxury for error, for missteps, for tentativeness."

On a recent day, The Wall Street Journal shadowed Mr. Romero to chronicle his crusade. Here's a summary:

6:15 a.m.

From his downtown office, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty, Mr. Romero scans the morning papers. He starts to squirm. The government still won't say how many detainees are in custody, what they have been charged with or where they are being held.

In a meeting several days earlier, he had unsuccessfully pressed FBI director Robert Mueller for information about the 1,000 people who have been detained on immigration and other charges. Do they have access to lawyers? How many are still in custody? "He wouldn't give an inch," says Mr. Romero. "He just sat there and said, 'We appreciate why you're asking these questions, but I don't have to answer them.' " The ACLU joined other groups to file a Freedom of Information Act request seeking such information; one of those requests was denied and two are pending.

8:00 a.m.

Mr. Romero gives a phone interview to a Spanish-language newswire. The new antiterrorism law, which allows authorities to detain immigrants seven days without charges, is going to have "enormous effects" on the Latino community, Mr. Romero tells the reporter. The ACLU plans to challenge the law's constitutionality, he says.

8:20 a.m.

The mail brings a handful of heartfelt donations. "Don't let our civil liberties vanish with the towers," wrote one Texan, who enclosed $100. But though the day's take of several thousand dollars is welcome, it won't do much to enhance the group's $50 million annual budget. The ACLU, started in 1920, has 300,000 members, 53 offices and 500 employees.

8:30 a.m.

Mr. Romero answers e-mail, and greets his assistant, Ellen Chege. "Are you OK?" he asks. Ms. Chege, who had recently opened a letter containing a strange white powder, says she's fine. She later tested negative for anthrax exposure.

9:05 a.m.

Public-education director Loren Siegel reports that the ACLU completed eight focus groups of ordinary Americans. In one group of nine people, four said they were willing to give up some civil liberties to be safer. Mr. Romero looks on the bright side: One participant said the country's democratic freedoms make her "proud to be an American." That line could be the centerpiece of a radio or print ad campaign, he says.

The group's current ad campaign shows an eerie blank page underneath the first few words of the U.S. Constitution, and the text, "Don't let the Constitution be rewritten by terrorism." Some people liked the ad, but Mr. Romero felt it was too edgy. He says he plans to switch agencies. The ACLU's agency, DeVito/Verdi of New York, says it had already quit over "creative differences" with Mr. Romero, and that the ACLU insisted on the "heavy handed" tone of the ads.

10:25 a.m.

Mr. Romero gathers in a conference room with senior staff, linked by speakerphone to the group's Washington office, to discuss an aviation-security bill pending in Congress.

The civil libertarians passed right over the headlined issue of the day: whether airport screeners should be federal employees. Instead, they zeroed in on the possibility that intensified airport searches would cast a net wider than that needed to snare terrorists.

Another concern was language in the proposed legislation suggesting that new technologies should be employed. That could include face-recognition technology, linked to photos of criminals stored in a computer. Such technology, even if it initially targeted just terrorists, could ultimately result in detentions of nonviolent offenders such as tax evaders or deadbeat dads, staffers fear. Bus terminals, seaports and train stations could adopt the same technology, predicts legislative council Rachel King, and "we'll be virtually living in a police state."

But, others ask, could they really advocate that airport officials look the other way if they catch a criminal? The group decides to send a letter to Congress urging it not to go beyond what is needed to keep airports safe. It also calls for an "independent entity" to oversee the effect on civil liberties.

10:55 a.m.

Mr. Romero brainstorms with senior staff on how to reorganize to combat new threats to liberties. He plans to tap one person to coordinate the effort, and calculates he needs an additional $1.5 million annually, which would include funding for several new positions.

One longtime supporter has anted up $50,000. However, major foundation donors to the ACLU have so far shied away from new giving. "What we need is greater unity, not greater fractiousness and contention," one foundation representative tells him.

11:20 a.m.

Geraldine Engel, in charge of mail solicitations, tells Mr. Romero, "I can't say that everything is peachy keen." Donations for September and the first half of October were down 10% over the year before, in part due to the cancellation of a planned direct-mail campaign.

The campaign, slated for mailing Sept. 12, sought donations to fight, among other things, a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. A new pitch, focusing on the ACLU's role as "chief defender" of "freedom, equality and tolerance," was mailed Oct. 17. The jury is still out on how it did, and the group's consultants warn that some people may be discarding nonessential mail.


Mr. Romero joins Finance Director Alma Montclair for a luncheon presentation on managing endowments in a recession.

2 p.m.

Between engagements, Mr. Romero camps out in the lobby of the New York Palace Hotel. His to-read folder includes information on a package of proposals before Florida's state Legislature that would, among other things, allow authorities to keep terrorism-related arrests secret for seven days. "This is just the beginning" of such state actions, he predicts.

2:30 p.m.

Geri Mannion, chairman of the nonprofit Carnegie Corp.'s U.S. democracy program, which funds the ACLU's voting-rights work, greets Mr. Romero warmly. But she hasn't even looked at his request for more funds to support a post-attack civil liberties campaign.

Mr. Romero knows Carnegie has a $10 million pot for post-Sept. 11 projects. He suggests Carnegie might want to fund a "know your rights" educational campaign for immigrants. He also needs money to fund legal services for immigrants, but suggests to Ms. Mannion that an educational effort would be "less controversial."

She promises nothing. "Give me a grant," Mr. Romero implores while on his way out. "I'll give you a hug," she replies. In the elevator, Mr. Romero sighs. "It's going to take a long time to raise this money."

4:00 p.m.

Meets with Brad Smith, in charge of "social justice" issues for the Ford Foundation, seeking an increase in its annual donation, currently about $360,000, in light of Sept. 11. Mr. Romero, who worked at the foundation for a decade before taking the ACLU job, continues the pitch later over drinks.

6:30 p.m.

Mr. Romero grills tuna steaks in his lower Manhattan loft, and relaxes with his longtime partner. Later, Mr. Glasser, the former ACLU chief, drops by to advise on possible staff reorganizations that might help the group cope with the post-Sept. 11 environment. By midnight, he prepares to get a short night's sleep before a new day.

Civil Liberties After Sept. 11

Oct. 26: President Bush signs antiterrorism legislation giving the government greater powers to monitor telephone calls, e-mail and Web surfing, detain immigrants and conduct searches without prior notice

Oct. 26: ACLU meets with FBI Director Robert Mueller; more than 900 people have been detained, but he refuses to say how many are in custody, where they are held, or whether they have access to lawyers

Oct. 30: Number of people detained in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks climbs to over 1,000; government now says the detainees have access to lawyers, but declines to provide other information

Oct. 31: Department of Justice quietly issues new rule allowing the government to monitor communications between federal detainees and their lawyers if the attorney general deems it "reasonably necessary" to deter future acts of terrorism

Nov. 1: Congress debates new airport-security legislation; civil-liberties groups focus on a part of the proposed law that could allow facial-scanning technology for passenger screening

Nov. 7: FBI declines Freedom of Information request on detainees; ACLU files a written appeal

Nov. 14: By executive order, President Bush establishes "military tribunals" to try suspected terrorists; the tribunals need not follow U.S. principles of law and evidence, and can impose death penalty

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