As the head the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Laura W. Murphy is a Constitution-thumping evangelist carrying an ominous message: Draconian laws to combat terrorism will give the government the power to terrorize its citizens.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Murphy urged Congress to reject or modify key provisions of President Bush's anti-terrorism package. She is disappointed with the scaled-back anti-terrorism bill that cleared the House Judiciary Committee by a 36-0 vote Wednesday night. The full House is scheduled to vote on the measure next week.
The legislation would give law enforcement expanded power to wiretap the phones of suspected terrorists, to share intelligence information about them and to track their Internet movements.
"Because of the broad new authority to wiretap and the broad definition of terrorism, my fear is that 10 years from now, the American people will look back on this legislation as the day when we crossed the line to a surveillance state," Murphy said.
Murphy said the House Judiciary Committee failed to adopt amendments that would have restored judicial supervision to electronic surveillance and imposed more stringent limits on the information about U.S. citizens that winds up in the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Under this legislation," Murphy said, "the CIA will gain access to all kinds of information on American citizens that they are now forbidden from receiving. And we won't know what they do with it or how long they will keep it because it will all be secret."
Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, had been a vocal critic of the measure, but he said he dropped his objections after the bill was modified to address his concerns about possible civil liberties violations.
The Senate bill is also expected to come up for a vote next week.
Murphy said the legislation not only tramples on constitutional rights, but the headlong rush to pass it ensures that many members of Congress will not understand its full impact.
Murphy has run the ACLU's Washington office for more than eight years and is the organization's chief lobbyist. The job is a comfortable fit for this Wellesley College graduate from Baltimore, whose family includes a long line of activists.
Her great-grandfather, John Henry Murphy Sr., was a former slave who founded the Afro-American newspaper in 1892. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Afro-American played an influential role in the battle against lynching, Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.
In 1970, her father, William H. Murphy Sr., became the second black lawyer in Baltimore to challenge a sitting white judge and win a full term on the bench.
Her mother, Madeline W. Murphy, ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the 1960s and in 1983 and has been a frequent guest on local TV and radio shows.
One of her brothers, William H. Murphy Jr., is a prominent lawyer and former city Circuit Court judge and mayoral candidate. Another brother, Arthur, is a political consultant.
Wednesday was Laura Murphy's 46th birthday, but she did not have time to celebrate. She spent much of the day on Capitol Hill lobbying. In the morning, she met with John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, and the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Later in the day, the judiciary committee sent the bill to the full House, and Senate leaders announced support for legislation in that chamber. Murphy described the House bill as "very bad."
"We took on Goliath, and we slowed him down," said Murphy, who conceded that it will be difficult to win further concessions before Congress votes on the legislation.
Murphy sees herself as not simply a lobbyist but a coalition builder. She describes herself as the "ACLU's chief schmoozer," the person who lays the groundwork for its lobbying efforts.
In the campaign against Bush's anti-terrorism measure, she was able to pull together an "odd fellows" coalition of conservatives and liberals. But it was not enough to stop the juggernaut launched by Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and a nervous public.
Ashcroft exerted intense pressure to get the legislation moving, and members of Congress succumbed to the national hysteria generated by the worst act of terrorism in the nation's history, Murphy said.
Murphy's childhood in Baltimore and her family's history of activism have given her good preparation to be a lobbyist. She grew up in Cherry Hill, a black working-class neighborhood in the southern part of the city. She graduated from Northwestern High School in 1972 and at age 16 entered Wellesley through its early admissions program.
Murphy said her mother had her transferred to Pimlico Junior High School when she was 12 years old because the school in Cherry Hill had inferior books and extracurricular activities. At that time, Pimlico's student body was primarily Jewish, and the same was true when she moved to Northwestern.
Murphy said she learned lessons about the value of diversity when she made the transition from an all-black environment to predominantly Jewish classrooms in Northwest Baltimore. She said she learned much about Jewish culture and how to adjust to classroom situations where there were "one, two or three" black students.
"I grew up with people in Cherry Hill who either worked for Bethlehem Steel or were domestic help for the wealthier families, and I think that whole experience honed my appreciation for the dignity of the individual," she recalled. "Then in high school I was exposed to Jewish culture, and then I went to ultra-WASPy Wellesley. All of these things have given me a great foundation to work from."
Living in Cherry Hill also exposed her to the class differences in society, she said: "So many of my black and white middle-income counterparts looked down their nose at Cherry Hill; some of them wouldn't even drive down there to visit me, especially at night. I really got an education about class and how cruel Americans can be to their own countrymen, black and white."
Murphy said her background enables her to feel comfortable in low-income minority communities or when she visits the White House. "I feel like my growing up in Cherry Hill prepared me to deal with anyone," she added.
Murphy said her childhood was "unusual" because both of her parents ran for public office much of the time. She said she began working in campaigns handing out literature when she was 7 years old.
"There was no way you could grow up in my house and not know about current events, and not know about the civil right movement," she said. "I had an uncle, George Murphy, who was my father's brother, who was a mentor to me and was a labor organizer and social activist. He traveled around the world with Paul Robeson, and he decided that I was his little protege. He imbued me with a strong sense of social justice."
Murphy does not hold a law degree. At Wellesley, she majored in the history of imperialism and colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries. "That major taught me the various methods governments use to oppress people, from the opium wars in China to apartheid in South Africa," she said.
Murphy said she is concerned by polls showing that many Americans favor giving up some of their rights if it will provide security from terrorism. The hysteria, she said, creates a climate that could lead to a loss of civil liberties and discrimination against Arab Americans and Muslims. Murphy said the ACLU believes that the nation can improve security without draconian laws. And she said the public is mistaken if it believes that the courts will always act expeditiously to right a constitutional wrong.
"It's very difficult to have bad laws struck down when the federal courts give so much deference to Congress," she said, adding, "It's more effective to catch the civil liberties violation while legislation is in Congress than to hope the Supreme Court will overturn a bad law later."