Civil Liberties

Policy Laundering For Freedom?

The ACLU takes US spying, torture, and disenfranchisement to the UN.


Lunch on the second day of the ACLU's membership conference featured former Amb. Joe Wilson, the husband of Valerie Plame, who had been outed as an undercover CIA agent by the Bush Administration. On July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote an op/ed in the New York Times describing his trip to Niger, where he investigated the claim that Iraq had imported 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from that country. He explained why that claim was not credible. That's when former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and others in the Bush Administration revealed his wife's undercover job—possibly as some kind of ham—handed attempt at revenge. Wilson, who clearly enjoys the limelight that the White House's attacks has brought him, soundly condemned the administration for its disdain for the rule of law.

Another ACLU client featured at the lunch was University of California at Santa Cruz student Konstanty Hordynski. A Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU found that the feds had monitored Hordynski's anti-war student group and had determined that he presented a "credible threat" to the United States. Next up was a Connecticut librarian Janet Nocek, who challenged an FBI national security letter demanding that she and her colleagues turn over patron's internet search records. She refused. Nocek was warned that she must never mention that she had ever received such a letter. In fact, during the first trial, she and several other librarians were forced to watch it via closed circuit television because their appearance in open court would constitute a breach of national security. Finally, in May, a federal appeals court declared such gag orders unconstitutional. The final luncheon presenter was NSA expert Jim Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace. Bamford is a two-time ACLU client. In the first case, Bamford had used FOIA to obtain unclassified documents about the NSA from the Justice Department. The NSA objected and reclassified the documents. The agency then threatened to prosecute him under the espionage statutes because it is illegal for citizens to have classified documents. However, the ACLU won when it pointed out that there was a standing executive order that said that once a document is unclassified it cannot be reclassified. President Reagan subsequently changed that executive allowing reclassification. Bamford is now suing the NSA over its illegal wiretapping program.

After lunch, I decided to drop in on the panel "Human Rights at Home: Is America Still a Beacon of Freedom?" Up until this point, I was pretty stoked that the ACLU was focusing primarily on issues that greatly concern me, specifically the Bush Administration's continuing assaults on the First and Fourth Amendments and the writ of habeas corpus. However, on this panel, the ACLU's more specifically leftist as opposed to its more libertarian bent came to the fore. The head of the ACLU's human rights program, Jamil Dakwar explained that it covered four areas, immigrant rights, racial justice, national security and women's rights. I don't think anyone should have any more or fewer rights than anybody else, so making legal distinctions between people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion and so forth is, in my opinion, invidious on its face, but I digress.

The first panelist was Lisa Grooms, a professor at Howard University, who declared that the constitution only provides for a limited set of rights. For example, she noted that the constitution protects property more or less, but has no economic or welfare rights which I took to mean that it doesn't guarantee minimum incomes or provide for socialized medicine. Fortunately, these "defects" in the constitution might be at least partially remedied by the ACLU engaging in bit of policy laundering itself. Policy laundering is when officials prod an international agency to adopt an unpopular policy that they can't get accepted domestically and then return home saying, "We are obligated to implement this disliked policy by international treaty." It is evidently also a game that non-governmental organizations such as the ACLU can play.

Specifically, Grooms and other panel members explained that the ACLU and a coalition of the 144 like-minded organizations went before the United Nations' Human Rights Committee. The United States is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and so is asked to provide a periodic report assessing its compliance with the treaty. In this case, the ACLU offered a shadow report that the UN's Human Rights Committee used to make its compliance recommendations to the United States. The issues raised by the ACLU's shadow report range from torturing detainees to concerns about various forms of discrimination against blacks, women and gays. Without going into details, I think in general that the Human Rights Committee's recommendations to the U.S. on how to treat detainees are right on and those regarding minority rights often endorse toward affirmative action policies, aka reverse discrimination. Although the United States has historically been woefully remiss in protecting the rights of all Americans regardless of race, class, sex and so forth, the proper remedy is not simply to change the groups favored by government. Human rights cannot consist of giving some people more rights than others.

The ACLU also lobbied the United Nations' Committee Against Torture reviews compliance with the Convention Against Torture. In January, the U.S. submitted its tough questions to the United States about its torture policies including the infamous "torture memo" from the White House Office of Legal Counsel. The U.S. responded to the committee with a memo that said, among other things, that the torture memo was merely clarifying what constituted torture under U.S. statutes. As far as I can tell, the Committee Against Torture has not yet sent a set of recommendations on how the U.S. can better comply with the Convention Against Torture. May I suggest that one good way to comply would be to repeal the Military Commissions Act that President Bush signed yesterday?

Another panelist was Laleh Ispahani, who heads up the ACLU's voting rights project. She discussed the fact that 5.5 million former felons are prohibited from voting in the United States. In particular, she said that black men (who are more frequently imprisoned that white men) are disenfranchised at rate seven times that of the national average. The Human Rights Committee report recommended: "The State party [U.S.] should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole." If a felon has paid his debt to society, then it seems fair to me that he should get back his right to vote.