ACLU rises on conservative tide


Conservatives are in power again. They control the White House, both houses of Congress and many state houses across the country. And one of their most popular targets, the American Civil Liberties Union, has never been more popular.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 82-year-old nonprofit organization has seen its ranks of members and supporters increase by 15 percent, to an all-time high of almost 380,000.

Many newcomers signed up because they're concerned about the Bush administration's anti-terrorism measures, which allow closed military trials, expanded profiling of immigrants and government monitoring of everyday electronic transactions.

The ACLU recently received the largest single donation in its history - an $8 million gift from Cleveland businessman Peter Lewis.

The group is also attracting unlikely allies from the libertarian right who share the same concerns over privacy rights. They include retired House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. Once among the most conservative voices in Congress, they signed on as consultants to the ACLU last month.

"People tend to join at a time when they really see a threat," said Emily Whitfield, a national ACLU spokeswoman. "I think times of war are always galvanizing, because that's a time when the government makes the case that civil liberties can be sacrificed."

The ACLU was founded after World War I as a nonpartisan group dedicated to preserving the freedoms set forth in the Bill of Rights. Its first clients were jailed anti-war activists.

Since then, the ACLU has found itself defending both the extreme right and left: Communists and neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and minorities seeking the right to vote.

Battling Ehrlich

Here in Maryland, the organization is butting heads with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. about the group's influence on a board overseeing a racial profiling settlement in which the ACLU represented minority motorists against the Maryland State Police.

In the polarizing world of American politics during the 1980s, conservatives frequently and loudly used "ACLU" as a four-letter word for out-of-step liberalism.

George Bush, the current president's father, used the ACLU to lash out at opponent Michael S. Dukakis during their 1988 battle for the presidency, summing up Dukakis' social positions with the group's abbreviation.

Dukakis lost the election, but the ACLU won 60,000 new members that year - many of them in reaction to Bush's hectoring.

On the other hand, membership has waned when politicians perceived as friendly to the group's cause take office, Whitfield said.

"When Clinton took office, our membership went down a little bit," she said. "People thought, 'Here's a Democrat and a liberal; he's going to take care of civil liberties.'"

That wasn't necessarily the case, Whitfield noted, as the Clinton administration increased the use of telephone tapping and other forms of electronic surveillance.

These days, the ACLU is addressing the new set of privacy fears with a national "Safe and Free" advertising campaign. It opposes profiling by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as a new Defense Department data-mining program called Total Information Awareness. Critics say that program will open the everyday movements and electronic transactions of ordinary citizens to extraordinary government intrusion.

The ACLU's campaign even mocks the phrase that the elder Bush used to deride Dukakis' involvement in the group: "Become a card-carrying member of the ACLU," its Web site beckons.

The group recently hired four organizers to help cities and towns pass resolutions saying they won't cooperate with anti-terrorism measures that they consider too intrusive. Such resolutions have passed in 29 communities, from San Francisco to Amherst, Mass.

Md. chapter grows

About 2,100 people have joined the Maryland chapter of the group since the terrorist attacks - an increase of nearly a third.

Mikhel Kushner, 29, director of the Women's Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of them.

Although her family has had a long history of involvement with the group -her father, a doctor, became a member at a young age - Kushner said she wasn't moved to join until the government action that followed the terrorist attacks.

"Enough angst about what's going on built up," Kushner said. "I just get the sense there is a lot going on that is being couched as necessary action in this war against terrorism, but is just whittling away the freedoms that are precious in this country."

Since she joined two months ago, Kushner said, "The ACLU has helped me articulate on some levels, when there is something going on that I'm concerned about, why I'm concerned about it. ... It's just nice to know that voice is there for me."

Interest on campuses

Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter, said she has been struck by the recent interest of young people; the group's membership has typically been older.

"There is, I think, a new movement on campuses," she said.

Some ACLU watchers say the organization has gone too far in its desire to capitalize on the Bush administration's policies.

John Eastman, a professor and constitutional expert at Chapman University Law School in Orange, Calif., said he generally supports the ACLU's mission of keeping government in check.

But its messages against the war on terrorism have undermined the group's credibility, he said.

"I don't think there is any war measure that they think is permissible under the Constitution," Eastman said. "You start wondering what kind of agenda underlies it, because it's not about civil liberties any more.

"I think they need to recognize that the greater threat to our liberty is not coming from the Patriot Act ... but from the terrorists."

However, Lewis R. Katz, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, said the ACLU's recent work has united supporters from opposite ends of the spectrum.

"The upsurge in ACLU membership has involved people on both the left and the right, especially those on the right who consider themselves libertarians," he said.

The group's strong rhetoric is necessary to make its message heard, said the professor, who has written about the war on terrorism.

"I think that the ACLU tends to push too far - appropriately - in response to official attempts pushing too far the other way," Katz said. "Hopefully, by pushing the issues all the way, the ACLU will help to moderate our government's policies so that they are effective without total trampling on individual rights."

Other privacy groups have grown during the war on terrorism. The 12-year-old Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that advocates for civil liberties on the Internet, has increased its membership by a third since Sept. 11, to about 8,500.

Shari Steele, EFF's executive director, said the foundation hasn't actively sought new members - they have just come, many in response to news about the government's data-mining programs.

"We get lots of comments from people saying the government is getting out of control," she said.

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