Civil Liberties

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.

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  1. I really don’t see this. The ACLU makes its money by raising funds. These fundraising campaigns tied to federal workforces are surely a huge supply of money for them. They’ll continue to denounce the lists and work for their defeat, but I don’t think some big wrong has occurred because, until then, they comply with them in order to participate in this kind of fundraising…

  2. The ACLU should NEVER accept money from states or from the federal government. That’s a no-brainer. If you have to ask why, you don’t understand what the real purpose of the ACLU is supposed to be and who it is protecting us against.

  3. Should they never accept money from state or federal government employees?

  4. Should they never accept money from state or federal government employees?

    Soft core libertarian answer: No one is stopping any person, federal or state employees included, from writing a check to the ACLU. The point is that the ACLU should not be soliciting them through an organization like this for obvious conflict of interest reasons.

    Hard core libertarian answer: There should be so few federal and state employees that it doesn’t matter.

  5. This is a very minor sin compared to the overwhelming good the ACLU has done and will continue to do. Accountability for torture, strip searches, drug law reform, and dozens of other issues that are important to civil libertarians. There is really no other organization that has endured so long and has been constantly demonized by people who want to use the government to tell people how to live. In a time when the State is becoming more powerful, this nitpicking doesn’t help anything.

  6. The dreaded Times are always too interesting for disobedience.

  7. There is really no other organization that has endured so long and has been constantly demonized by people who want to use the government to tell people how to live.

    The NRA.

  8. I’m the NRA/ACLU and I vote! (Always for losers, of course, but I do vote.)

  9. I’m the NRA/ACLU and I vote! (Always for losers, of course, but I do vote.)

    You whistle past yourself?

  10. I still think this argument is petty and vain. Bill Flanigen says that the “ACLU effectively endorsed” the federal lists. Does he know what “endorse” means? It means to openly approve, or to recommend something. Is that what the ACLU did?

    It was that overstatement that started me thinking about this, and how this is one of the lamest political tricks. In the last thread on this topic, a number of posters easily recognized that playing by the rules does not mean that you “endorse” (approve of or recommend) the rules. Otherwise, we’d have the NRA stockpiling howitzers, the EFF illegally downloading all of its software, and law schools around the country would shut their doors rather than allow military recruiters on campus. People opposed to government built roads would have to use helicopters, except that they’d need an FAA license and use FCC approved radios.

    The lure of calling somebody a hypocrite has combined with today’s “gotcha” journalism to create a truly obnoxious brew of irrelevant non-analysis masquerading as intelligent journalism.

  11. Seems to me that we need a new organization that fights for the entire constitution, not just the amendments the ACLU and the NRA like.


  12. Muslim so-called charities have been repeatedly found to be funneling money to terrorists. Preventing this is the duty of our government, and doesn’t violate anyone’s civil liberties.

  13. Sorry, but we all know the ACLU is a liberal joke. They only go protect liberal liberty, note they don’t try and protect the right to bear arms.

  14. “Sorry, but we all know the ACLU is a liberal joke. They only go protect liberal liberty, note they don’t try and protect the right to bear arms.”

    Too bad you aren’t actually in favor of liberty. You only think right wing liberty is valuable, thereby becoming the same sad joke you accuse the ACLU of being.

    Yes, the ACLU should fight for all liberty regardless of politics. But I really can’t argue against fighting for some liberty. It’s not like they are fighting against liberty.

    The problem with people like you is that you don’t believe in “liberty” per se. You aren’t doing anything more than advocating for the normal right wing causes. You think that by cloaking your arguments in the rhetoric of liberty you can fool people. But if you are truly pro liberty, then you wouldn’t despise a group that advocates for liberty.

    Your “liberty for me, but not for you” concept is really terrible. Since liberty isn’t really your cause, stop using it as your catch phrase.

  15. The ACLU is an enemy of liberty. They support the “right” of Islamo-fascist terrorists to do their thing without interference from the authorities. They are in favor of racial preferences. They are opposed to the Second Amendment. They pervert the concept of civil liberties as they seek to prevent the police from protecting the public from crime. The ACLU is anti-American radicals pretending to be civil libertarians.

    What leftists call “right wing causes” is nothing but the defense of the US Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Among the domestic enemies of the Constitution is the ACLU.

  16. Let them spend all their CFC money fighting the lists.

  17. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

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