The ACLU's Sellout on Watch Lists

Why did the civil liberties group effectively endorse a federal program it has repeatedly criticized?


Everyone has a price. For the American Civil Liberties Union, it turns out to be about half a million dollars.

Last week, the ACLU published a study condemning federal laws that are designed to prevent charities from providing "material support" for terrorism. Those laws, the report says, "are in desperate need of re-evaluation and reform." Among other injustices, they "punish wholly innocent assistance to arbitrarily blacklisted individuals and organizations, undermine legitimate humanitarian efforts, and can be used to prosecute innocent donors."

The ACLU often refers to federal terrorism watch lists as "blacklists"—which, in effect, they are. But focus on the whole phrase, "arbitrarily blacklisted individuals."

An essential component of the ACLU's complaint is that poorly managed watch lists make it easier for the government to harass or destroy innocent Muslim-American charities. For years, the ACLU has criticized those lists—as they are applied both to organizations and to individuals.

But, for years, the ACLU has also effectively endorsed those lists—for money.

Former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer writes about the organization's watch-list hypocrisy in her new book, Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU. Most of the story, though, was already part of the public record.

In 2004, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero signed the organization up for the Combined Federal Campaign—a government program that facilitates charitable giving by federal employees. Participation, Kaminer wrote, was expected to net the ACLU about $500,000 a year.

But the contract included a distressing requirement: The ACLU would have to check its employee rolls against federal watch lists.

It's already illegal to employ anyone on the government's Specially Designated Global Terrorists or Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons lists, but that doesn't mean that the ACLU had to volunteer compliance with those laws in exchange for money—especially when the ACLU was and remains concerned about the effect of watch lists on civil rights and liberties.

When the ACLU signed onto the CFC, it became complicit in government practices that its new report says "are neither fair nor effective, and are undermining American values of due process and fairness."

You begin to feel doubly bad for the Muslim-American charities. They are racked by federal watch-list laws—and their strongest ally is an organization that sold out its own principled opposition to those laws.

Perhaps criticizing the ACLU on these grounds is nitpicking. The group's obeisance to objectionable federal watch-list laws was merely symbolic, after all. The CFC contract entailed no greater responsibility than that which the law already mandated.

But civil-liberties advocates work daily in a world that understands how important symbolism can be. With good cause, the ACLU often nitpicks federal policies that amount only to marginal violations of civil liberty—because rules are rules, and the government should deliver fully on its promises to respect our rights.

Well, ideals are ideals, and the ACLU compromised theirs for half a million dollars a year. A pittance, really, but apparently enough to override principle.

Bill Flanigen is Reason's 2009 Burton C. Grey Memorial intern. This article originally appeared in the New York Post.