Civil Liberties

Watchlists: Bad for Muslim-American Charities, Great for Employee Screening at the ACLU


This week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report condemning the heavy-handed enforcement of federal laws intended to prevent charities from providing "material support" for terrorism.

The laws prohibiting material support for terrorism are in desperate need of re-evaluation and reform. These laws punish wholly innocent assistance to arbitrarily blacklisted individuals and organizations, undermine legitimate humanitarian efforts, and can be used to prosecute innocent donors who intend to support only lawful activity through religious practice, humanitarian aid, speech, or association.  

Focus on "arbitrarily blacklisted individuals." An essential part of the ACLU's complaint is that poorly managed terrorism watchlists make it easier for the government to abuse or destroy innocent Muslim-American charities. It's worth noting these specific criticisms, because a few years ago the ACLU agreed voluntarily to screen its own employees using the federal terrorism watchlists. According to Wendy Kaminer, a former ACLU board member, the organization has for years been giving what amounts to a paid endorsement of terrorism watchlists. Her new book, Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, recycles the story that she originally told in a 2006 HuffPo post:

[I]n early January '06, the ACLU's Board of Directors (of which I am a dissident member,) authorized Executive Director Anthony Romero to sign an entirely voluntary contract with the Bush Administration pledging to comply with federal blacklisting laws. Why? The ACLU is taking this pledge for money—an expected $500,000 per year. A promise to comply with blacklisting laws is required as a condition of participation in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a giving vehicle for federal employees and a soliciting vehicle for qualifying charities. (Every year, federal workers are provided with a list of charities to which they can choose to contribute through the CFC.)

The above describes the tail end of what was actually a two-year controversy at the ACLU (where I worked as an intern for part of 2007). The New York Times first reported on it in July of 2004.

The Combined Federal Campaign's website confirms that, in 2005, participating organizations were required to check their employee lists against government terrorism watchlists—including the same registry of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons that the ACLU slags in its new report on charities.

Technically, it's illegal to employ anyone on a terrorism watchlist, so the ACLU is obligated to comply with the law even if it isn't part of the Combined Federal Campaign. That doesn't mean, though, that the organization had to sign a contract with the Bush administration, or that (as Kaminer alleges) Romero had to expose the organization and himself to liability. From Worst Instincts:

By volunteering our compliance [with the CFC watchlist requirement], we were risking additional liability for noncompliance, if we were found to have intentionally misled the government when we promised to obey the law…. Romero assured the board, and reportedly informed the government, that he would not check the watch lists, leaving unanswered questions about how he intended to keep his promise to boycott anyone named on them and continue to qualify for CFC funds.

All this for $500,000 a year. A pittance, but apparently enough to override principle.

NEXT: A Scary Thing Indeed

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  1. Wait, government crowds/bleeds out private charity and then declares arbitrary instructions for how it’s money is used?

    How is this still news?

  2. Is the ACLU a private organization? Do they have the full force of the US government behind them? Can they lock people up or prevent them from doing day to day activities because of the watch lists?

    Am I the only person who finds it a tad ironic to see this post on Hit and Run ?

    Granted it’s a kind of crappy decision on the part of the ACLU — but one could make the case that the government monies will be used in part to fight against the watchlists.

    And the fact that it’s already illegal to employ someone on the watch lists kind of makes not signing the contract like leaving money on the table.

  3. It’s illegal to employ someone on a watchlist? Are these known terrorists or, just someone suspected of having those ‘tendencies’? If they haven’t been indicted, arrested or, convicted of anything, how are they supposed to earn a living if they can’t get a job?

  4. ChicagoTom,

    I’m not trying to draw an equivalence between the ACLU and the US government. I’m pointing that it’s absurd for the ACLU to criticize watchlists while volunteering (for money) to screen its own employees using those watchlists. Granted, it HAS to obey the watchlist rules anyway, but it doesn’t have to volunteer its obeisance for money as part of a contract.

    If the alternative is “leaving money on the table,” well, the ACLU has principles that ought sometimes to require (and often DO cause) it to “leave money on the table.” In fact, after Romero initially signed the CFC contract in early 2004 without the permission of the Board of Directors, some members of the Board echoed these same concerns. After bad publicity, the Board forced Romero to rescind the agreement in August 2004. (See Kaminer’s book or her HuffPo article to see why the Board changed its mind in early 2006.) What confuses and angers me as an ACLU supporter is that, in this case, they chose to sell out for so goddamned little.

  5. The ACLU is a non-profit corporation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t revenue seeking. Just because the company doesn’t pay dividends doesn’t mean that the executives of the company are just as obsessed with raking in cash as a for-profit company.

    All these non-profit activist organizations are institutionally obsessed with revenue. They pick issue to publicize based on the issues ability to generate donations. The ACLU wasn’t going to leave money on the table out of principle when picking it up discretely wouldn’t cause revenue to fall from other sources.

  6. All these non-profit activist organizations are institutionally obsessed with revenue.

    Every last one. It’s why I hate joining non-profits, even if I like the work they do. I know I’m signing up for a lifetime of beg letters.

  7. Does anyone know if any libertarian 501c3s are participants in the Combined Federal Campaign? If not, is it because of watchlist rules?

  8. You should watch Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary Kurt & Courtney. While making the film, Courtney Love used the showebiz clout she had at the time to try to stymie Broomfield and suppress the film.

    When Broomfield learns that Love is going to be given an award by the ACLU for her work on behalf of free-speech, he sneaks into event and bum rushes the stage, denouncing Love and the ACLU. It ends with Broomfield being dragged away, kicking and screaming by security. It is classic.

  9. “Granted, it HAS to obey the watchlist rules anyway.

    No it doesn’t. It’s called civil disobedience. But of course over the years the ACLU has forgotten how that works.

  10. Now that we’ve established what the ACLU is, all we are arguing about is price.

    I guess first bid was $500,000.

    ACLU = Whores.

  11. Yo, fuck Muslim charities!

  12. How much money in donations would the ACLU lose if they changed their official position that the 2nd amendment is a collective right?

    Q: How does an ACLU lawyer count to 10?

    A: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

  13. All these non-profit activist organizations are institutionally obsessed with revenue.

    That describes my Home Owners Association perfectly.

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