Saturday, April 02, 2005


By William Fisher

A major advocacy group is charging that a Yemeni businessman captured in Egypt was handed over to U.S. authorities and "disappeared" for more than a year and a half before being sent to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Human Rights Watch has released details of the previously unreported “reverse rendition” case of `Abd al-Salam `Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni terror suspect.

John Sifton, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IPS that "Al-Hila was essentially kidnapped on the streets of Cairo and then 'disappeared' in U.S. custody. Whatever the allegations against him, he should have been charged and given the opportunity to challenge his detention."

“Until this man was able to get a letter out of Guantanamo, he was one of the ‘ghost prisoners’. One of the most troubling aspects of his case is that he was arrested in a civilian setting, held without charge or access to counsel – or any rights at all – and then shipped off, not to Guantanamo Bay but to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. For a year and a half, there was no record of him anywhere.”

The Human Rights Watch briefing details how Al-Hila, a Yemeni intelligence colonel and businessman who had been involved in helping Arab Islamists in the 1990s, was first picked up by Egyptian authorities while on a business trip to Cairo in September 2002. Within ten days he was taken to Baku, Azerbaijan, then on to the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and, finally, sometime in mid-2004, to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Prior to detention in Cairo, Al-Hila, a father of three, had been in daily
contact with his family in Yemen. After his "disappearance" in September
2002, the family did not hear from him again until April 2004. Details of
his whereabouts were not known until he was able to smuggle a letter out of Afghanistan. The letter was released by Yemeni authorities in April 2004.

HRW’s briefing says that Al-Hila arrived in Cairo on an EgyptAir flight, September 19, 2002, checking into a five-star hotel. He disappeared within a week of his arrival in Egypt. He is believed to have been taken first to Baku, Azerbaijan, and he was then transferred to U.S. custody in Afghanistan. After being held for 16 months in Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he is still being held.

HRW says that, in addition to his business interests, Al-Hila had been a Yemeni intelligence officer, and was in charge of transferring scores of Arab Islamists from Yemen to other countries, including Western Europe, to seek asylum. His position meant that he had a close relationship with Yemeni President `Ali `Abdullah Salih, as well as with a broad array with Arab and Western intelligence services.

Al-Hila’s trip to Cairo, however, was supposed to be strictly business. He was invited by the Arab Contractors’ head office in Cairo to settle some financial disagreements over his construction business commission.

Al-Hila had been in daily contact with his family, using both his Yemeni and Cairo cellular phones. On September 24, his family became worried when he did not answer their calls for an entire day.

Yemeni officials called their Egyptian counterparts to discover Al-Hila’s whereabouts. The Yemeni ministerial cabinet issued a statement on October 31, 2002, calling on Egyptian officials to disclose Al-Hila’s whereabouts.

The first Egyptian official response to the allegations came on November 3, 2002, in a report by the state-run Middle East News Agency, which quoted an “Egyptian official source” as stating that Al-Hila left Cairo on an American flight to Baku on September 28, 2002. The source also denied any involvement by the Egyptian authorities in his “disappearance.”

The family received no specific information from the Egyptian or Yemeni governments on his allegedly voluntary flight to Baku. They were told by the Yemeni foreign minister in November 2002 that Egyptian officials showed him the “departure card” each passenger fills out when flying out of Cairo Airport.

HRW says “Al-Hila’s fate was unknown for more than a year and a half. During that time, his family received no information. Finally, on April 14, 2004, Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi announced that the Yemeni embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, had received a letter from Al-Hila smuggled out of Bagram Airbase in Kabul. Dated January 12, 2004, it stated that he had been detained by the CIA in Afghanistan for 16 months, after being kidnapped in Cairo by Egyptian intelligence.”

His brief letter was a plea for help for the president of Yemen. “I have been put in jail in Afghanistan by the Americans, after I was arrested in the Arab Republic of Egypt during a brief business trip. The CIA conspired with the Egyptian Mukhabarrat, making false allegations and threats against me, so as to justify their crime of kidnapping me from Egypt and locking me up in this Afghani prison. …I urge you to request my immediate release and my safe transfer home.”

In July 2004, Al-Hila’s family received a letter from Kabul via the Red Cross dated May 26, 2004 -- the first communication from him since he had been detained a year-and-a-half earlier. Two months later, they received another letter, dated July 19 — this time from Guantanamo.

In December 2004, the family received another two letters dated October 15 and October 30. Al-Hila wrote in the October 15 letter, “I was moved to the new prison, from Afghanistan to Cuba, Guantanamo….” The rest of the sentence was blacked out by the U.S. military censor.

As of this writing, there is no evidence that he has been released from Guantanamo, HRW says.

Asked whether the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) has been at all cooperative with HRW, Sifton told IPS “There are individual people there who really want to help; for example, people in the JAG Corps. But the civilian leadership of the Pentagon are merely stewards of damage control.”

"The Bush administration continues to believe that by invoking the word 'terror' it can detain anyone in any corner of the world without any oversight," he said. "Yet all these cases do is suggest that the United States has no commitment to legal principles. Turning your back on the law is not the way to stop terrorism."


The article below was written for InterPress News Service

By William Fisher

In a political environment more fractious than Washington has seen in more than a decade, there are at least a few signs that left and right can find common ground.

A current example is a coalition of conservative interest groups that has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations to press for changes in the USA patriot Act.

Under the leadership of former Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican from Georgia, the new group, "Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances" (PCRB), will work to revise the most extreme provisions of the law that gave law enforcement and security agencies sweeping new powers in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.”

The new coalition includes Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Policy Center, the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Eagle Forum, the Second Amendment Foundation, and Brad Jansen, adjunct scholar, Competitive Enterprise Institute.

In an online interview, Barr told IPS, “The provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that keep me awake at night are those that undermine the basic notions of judicial review of Executive branch actions, and which undermine the notion embodied in the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights that the government should not be allowed to gather evidence against a person without at least some reasonable suspicion that the person has violated a law. If these provisions are allowed to stand and be employed by the government, then the Fourth Amendment will have been rendered essentially meaningless, and with it, the basic notion of privacy in America.”

He elaborated: “A core principle on which the conservative philosophy of governing is based is limited government. This principle is important not only when determining the appropriate levels of government spending, regulation, and interference in the economy, for example, but also when deciding if federal criminal laws give the government too much power. Thus, in assessing the USA PATRIOT Act, many conservatives have determined the law gives the federal government too much power, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, for instance.

“At the core”, he added, “liberals and conservatives alike share an interest in protecting individual liberties, especially those embodied in the Bill of Rights, against government efforts to take them away.”

The USA Patriot Act was hurriedly passed by Congress with little debate and signed by President Bush weeks after the terror attacks of September 11th 2001. It gave law enforcement and security agencies sweeping new powers. However, Congress agreed that since it was navigating in uncharted waters, it would allow several provisions of the law to “sunset”, or expire this year. These provisions would have to be reenacted for the law to stay on the books.

Regarding the conservative-liberal partnership, Barr told IPS, “For too many years, conservatives assumed that liberals, such as the ACLU, would be the People’s watchdog for civil liberties; and that when these liberties were threatened, we as conservatives could rely on the ACLU to go to court and to the legislature, to protect us. No longer can conservatives sit back and rely on liberals to protect our rights; we have to be involved, too. Conservatives, like liberals, must become actively enjoined in the fight to protect civil liberties in the wake of the government’s response to the attacks of 9-11. If we do not join together, we will lose the battle.”

At its maiden press conference in Washington, members of the coalition were sharply critical of the “absolutist” position of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. A spokesman said he hoped the current Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, would be more flexible.

“Anyone who takes the position that Americans who stand up and fight to retain our civil liberties, including the right to privacy, and who believe that we as Americans do not need to sacrifice our liberty in order to fight terrorists, are aiding and abetting terrorists, is rendering a disservice to our Founding Fathers, and to Americans through the ages who cherish and fight for our God-given liberties,” Barr said.

He declared that the PRCB is focusing its efforts on reforming federal laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, that “have given the government too much power in the fight against terrorists. We are not engaged in leveling personal attacks against the former Attorney General or anyone else”.

PRCB is urging Congress to modify several provisions of the law, including:

Section 215, which allows federal agents to secretly collect records about you, such as medical documents, library records, and even records of firearm purchases, without specific evidence linking you individually to a foreign agent.

Section 213, which allows federal agents to secretly search peoples’ homes and
businesses and snoop through their personal property without notice.

Section 802, which expands the definition of domestic terrorism so broadly that
ordinary people trying to exercise their First Amendment rights on issues across
the political spectrum might get charged as terrorists.

PRCB is a non-partisan organization,” Barr told IPS. “We will work with Democrats and Republicans alike in both House of the Congress, to bring balance back to the fight against terrorists. In the last Congress, efforts to bring that balance back to the USA PATRIOT Act, for example, as set forth in the SAFE Act, enjoyed bipartisan support; and we expect that Democrats and Republicans in both Houses will support our efforts in this 109th Congress, too.”

He declared, “For as long as I have been involved in matters involving the federal government – going back to the early 1970s – I have observed that Administrations of both major parties seek more secrecy in what they do, than the People should consent to.”

Asked whether the Bush Administration’s position favoring secrecy, and viewing the debate over the USA PATRIOT Act as black and white, with no room for amendment, makes the coalition’s job more difficult, Barr said, “Yes, but I believe that when all is said and done in this debate this year in which the Congress will address the USA PATRIOT Act, we will witness some compromises by the Administration.”


By William Fisher

Terri Schiavo is dead. But while her feuding husband and parents continue to bicker about her final resting place, she has already moved onto a much larger – and even more acrimonious – stage. She has become the poster child for the religious right.

Motivated by a variety of reasons – from heartfelt religious conviction to demagogic political opportunism – politicians, clergymen and others who opposed the removal of her feeding tubes, are expected to move the focus to the U.S. Congress.

Their goals are nothing less than redefining ‘life’ and the independence of the judiciary. As many right-to-life advocates trumpeted during the media circus accompanying Terri’s tragic death watch, they believe that life begins at the moment of conception and should end by natural means, unless the victims have unequivocally made their end-of-life preferences known. Thus the end-of-life issue will be inextricably linked with abortion. Proponents hope this will present a backdoor means of reversing Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.

The belief of right-to-life advocates about the judiciary is that it is in the hands of “arrogant, runaway, judicial activists”.

The political debate started even before Terri Schiavo died. With this unfortunate woman very much still alive as an icon, it is unlikely to go away any time soon.

What is likely to follow in the Congress this summer probably will not qualify as a ‘debate’; it promises to be a political carnival. It will be rancorous, filled with political posturing, ironies and hypocracies, and undeterred by transparent contradictions.

The outlines of the Republican strategy were unambiguously laid out by the House of Representatives Majority Leader, Tom DeLay of Texas – who served as the tip of the spear in the battle to save Terri’s life. “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior… the courts "thumbed their nose at Congress and the president,” he said, suggesting that Congress was already exploring responses, including Congressional impeachment of the judges involved.

DeLay’s position was echoed by many other spokesmen for the religious right, including Randall Terry, often-jailed anti-abortion founder of Operation Rescue. Addressing doctors who perform abortions, he said, "When I or people like me are running the country, you'd better flee because we will find you, we will try you and we'll execute you. I mean every word of it. I will make it part of my mission to see to it that you are tried and executed."

And Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, said the judges who would not stop the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube were "guilty not only of judicial malfeasance but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life."

The political fall-out from the Schiavo case will likely manifest itself early in Congress on the issue of judicial nominations, especially if President Bush has to nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court.

Regarding judicial nominations to lower courts, the Democrats in the Senate have blocked a dozen or so of the names President Bush has sent up for confirmation. For the most part, their reason has been that the nominees are too conservative and too doctrinaire.

The Democrats’ position was laid out by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning Washington think-tank. “Congress has no place intervening in the private medical decisions of any American. The shameless 11th hour intervention in the Schiavo case by right-wing leaders is a disgrace to all Americans. The case had been fully vetted by state and local courts in Florida for years, yet at the last minute, Congress decides it knows better than the judgment of Ms. Schiavo's husband and Florida state courts. Conservatives, once the self-proclaimed protectors of individual privacy and federalism, have morphed into the party of personal violation and ham-fisted federal intervention,“ the left-leaning Center said.

The CAP was referring to a law hurriedly passed by Congress giving Federal Courts jurisdiction to review State Court decisions in the Schiavo case de novo, from the beginning. The Florida courts declined to conduct such a review, and their decision was upheld by Federal appellate courts and ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court. President Bush flew back from his Easter vacation in Texas to sign the new law. All the courts that reviewed the case ruled that Terri was in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ from which recovery was not possible, and all affirmed that Terri’s husband, Michael, was her legal guardian and able to make life-or-death decisions on her behalf.

But many Democrats, out of conviction or political expediency or fear of the religious right, voted with Republicans to pass the 11th hour legislation.

A wide majority of the American people appeared to disagree with the law. Opinion polls such as one conducted by CBS News, found that 82 percent opposed Bush and Congress involving themselves in the Schiavo matter. Three-quarters thought Congress got involved because of politics over principle, which could account for the 34 percent approval rating for Congress -- its lowest since 1997.

Republican lawmakers may also seek broader federal legislation on the rights of "incapacitated persons". "I think we are more likely to look at a general piece of legislation," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a staunch conservative who is often mentioned as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008.

State governments have also been energized by the Schiavo case. Ten states have already introduced new end-of-life legislation.

Ironies abound in the Schiavo case. For one thing, Republicans have traditionally been the party that has opposed ‘activist judges, and fought to preserve and increase the power of the states over the Federal government. Their current position on the judiciary appears to reverse both positions.

There are others. For example, most of the 19 judges who reviewed the Schiavo case were conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. Having failed to obtain the rulings they sought, Republicans in Congress will now seek to limit the power of the judicial branch of government. There is even discussion of imposing term-limits on what have always been lifetime appointments to the bench. Those who wrote the U.S. Constitution insisted that the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – be co-equal.

Then there’s the charge that Rep. DeLay led the very public campaign to save Schiavo’s life to divert attention from his current ethical and perhaps criminal activities associated with political fund-raising.

There is also the issue of his father, from whom he removed from life-support in the absence of a ‘living will’. He says the Schiavo case was different because she was not on life support, though most physicians believe that nutrition and hydration constitute life support because ending them ends life.

Yet another irony: When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he signed a right-to-die law that lets a patient's surrogate make life-ending decisions on his or her behalf. The measure also allows Texas hospitals to disconnect patients from life-sustaining systems if a physician, in consultation with a hospital bioethics committee, concludes that the patient's condition is hopeless.


By William Fisher

The Japanese-American who waited 40 years for justice is dead.

Fred Korematsu, hailed by many as the Rosa Parks of the Second World War,
passed away in the Northern California community of Larkspur. He was 86.

The beginning of Korematsu’s 40 years started in a jail cell in Oakland, California. It passed through defeat after defeat in U.S. courts all the way to the Supreme Court, and ended with his total exoneration – and the award of the Presidential Medal of Honor.

In between was one of the most egregious chapters in the history of American civil rights.

In February 1942, following Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry. Citizens and non-citizens alike were shipped off to camps.

But Korematsu refused to surrender. While his parents were sent off to internment, he was arrested, tried, convicted and jailed. In 1944, Roosevelt’s order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Enter Ernest Besig, a lawyer and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Bessig wanted to find a case that would test the constitutionality of internment. Bessig came up with the $5,000 required to free Korematsu on bail, but the military police refused to release him.

Instead, he was taken to a racetrack, which was serving as a staging area for Japanese-Americans. He slept in a horse stall and later was sent to a camp in Topaz, Utah.

Meanwhile, his case was wending its way through the courts, and eventually all legal avenues had been exhausted. Internment ended in 1944, and Korematsu returned to San Francisco. He raised a family and worked as a draftsman. But his felony conviction kept him from getting a job at a large firm or with the government.

Then in 1981, a legal historian, Peter H. Irons, asked the Justice Department to show him the original documents in the case. There he discovered that the lawyer who had argued the Korematsu case for the government had lied to the Supreme Court.

Two years later, the case was reopened. Korematsu was offered a pardon, which he refused. He wanted a fair trial. Soon afterward, a federal court ruled that Korematsu had been tried based on flawed ‘evidence’ and his conviction was overturned.

Thus Korematsu ended a dark chapter in U.S. legal history.

Five years later, President Gerald R. Ford decried the internment as a "national mistake," and, in 1983, a unanimous federal commission found that the internment policies were not a matter of military necessity, and were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership".

Five years later, President Ronald Reagan called the internment a "grave injustice" authorized reparations of $20,000 each to thousands of surviving internees, including Korematsu. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Korematsu a presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

President Clinton said, "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls -- Plessy, Brown, Parks," Clinton said. "To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu”.

The ‘Plessy’ Clinton referred to was Homer Plessy, a 30-year old shoemaker, who was jailed in 1890 for sitting in the "White's" car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy was a mix of seven-eighths white and one-eighths black. The Louisiana law still considered him black and, therefore, required him to sit in the "colored" car. He took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. The court found against him, and it would not be until 1954 that the court would rule that "separate but equal" was no longer be the law of the land.

That decision, known as Brown v. Board of Education, involved a black third-grader named Linda Brown, who had to walk one mile in Topeka, Kansas, through a railroad switchyard to get to her black elementary school, even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks away. Linda's father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her in the white elementary school, but the principal of the school refused. With the help of Topeka's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1951 little Linda Brown sued the Topeka Board of Education. At the trial, the NAACP argued that segregated schools sent the message to black children that they were inferior to whites; therefore, the schools were inherently unequal. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which said in a unanimous 1954 ruling, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Leading Linda Brown’s legal team was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rosa Parks, who has been called the "mother of the civil rights movement", was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama when, in December of 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. The bus driver had her arrested. She was tried and convicted of violating a local ordinance. Her act sparked a citywide boycott of the bus system by blacks that lasted more than a year. The boycott raised an unknown clergyman named Martin Luther King, Jr., to national prominence and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses.

For Fred Korematsu, however, the issue resurfaced in April 2004, when the question before the Supreme Court was whether U.S. courts could review challenges to the imprisonment of ‘enemy combatants’ held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Korematsu, then 84, filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying, "The extreme nature of the government's position is all too familiar."

The result was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Bush administration's policy of detaining foreign nationals without legal process at Guantanamo Bay was unconstitutional.

“There are Arab Americans today who are going through what Japanese- Americans experienced years ago, and we can’t let that happen again,” said Korematsu.

Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told IPS, “"If it had not been for Fred Korematsu, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- this most shameful chapter in America's history -- would have been just a footnote in our history books. His actions have served to open the hearts and minds of an entire generation. In the aftermath of September 11, our ability to protect civil liberties has been strengthened immeasurably by the courageous actions of this one man, who some sixty years ago, quietly stood up for his constitutional rights."


By William Fisher

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, he did so kicking and screaming. He wasn’t so much afraid of ‘the people’ getting access to government documents – he doubted they would be interested. He was afraid of the press.

That was back in the days when citizen interest groups were far less numerous and far less powerful. Today, these are the groups that file most of the FOIA requests, while an increasing number of journalists and news organizations find the law virtually useless.

For the media, the main reason is time. It can easily take up to three years to obtain documents through a FOIA request. Frequently, government agencies that hold requested documents claim an exemption or simply refuse to produce them. At that point, the case moves to the courts, where information-seekers can sue the government.

For journalists, the story is usually dead by the time documents appear. That’s one of the reasons so many published quotes these days are attributed to unnamed officials who speak “on condition of anonymity”. Journalists cultivate their own sources. And the need for speed has only been exacerbated by the 24/7-news cycle.

Anonymous sourcing is nothing new (remember ‘Deep Throat’?). But the practice has proliferated exponentially over the past decade.

One reason is the ‘PR-izing’ of government. The number of so-called public affairs officers in the public sector has increased dramatically since the Clinton Administration, and even more under President Bush. Both used pre-packaged ‘news’ to get their messages out, but our current president’s media machine has brought this dubious artform to a new level altogether. Even though the Government Accountability Office has labeled the practice as illegal ‘covert propaganda’, President Bush is relying on other legal opinion and shows no inclination to desist.

But for advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the American Way or hundreds of other similar organizations, FOIA still represents arguably their only avenue toward disclosure of ‘un-PR-ized’ original information.

But the process can be expensive. The Department of Homeland Security recently told People for the American Way it would cost close to $400,000 for them to compile the requested documents.

The obsessive secrecy of the Bush Administration has triggered a fourfold increase in the numbers of documents categorized as ‘classified’ – and a corresponding spike in FOIA requests.

Most of what we know about the abuses perpetrated by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other numerous locations, has come from unclassified but ‘sensitive’ documents obtained by advocacy groups after FOIA requests. Likewise, whistleblowers, lobbyists, drug companies, detainee renderers, and so forth.

Thus, the organizations that have endured the delays and spent the considerable sums involved in requesting documents and then going to court to get them have themselves become prime news sources for journalists. The interest of the media is to get the news out right away. The interest of the Bush Administration is to stop disclosure altogether or delay it as long as possible.

The current government’s vale of secrecy also generated a virtual cottage industry of ‘open-the-government’ programs, such as the Government Secrecy project of the American Federation of Scientists, OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Watch, and many others. And these too have become news sources for journalists.

Among news organizations, there have been some FOIA exceptions. For example, The Associated Press filed a FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit to compel disclosure of President Bush's Vietnam-era Air National Guard service. Documents made public by the Pentagon in response to a 2003 FOIA request from the St. Petersburg Times, indicate that since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, thousands of pounds of explosives, hundreds of mines, mortars, grenades and firearms and dozens of rockets and artillery rounds have been lost or stolen from U.S. stockpiles and have possibly been misused. And there have been others.

But even if more news organizations were prepared to dig into their deep pockets to file FOIA requests, many consider it to be a fruitless exercise. Given the time it takes them to actually obtain government documents, the story they originally wanted to report goes un-reported – or is reported citing anonymous sources -- and the story becomes the struggle for disclosure.

Given the Bush Administration’s penchant for ‘staying on message’, we shouldn’t expect this media dilemma to go away any time soon.

Thomas Paine's Corner

By Jason Miller

As I opened my inbox today, I was greeted by a notification that "Civil Warrior" had commented on the blog that I founded, Thomas Paine's Corner. "Civil Warrior" directed my attention to a site at Being the civil libertarian and devout member of the ACLU that I am, naturally I was intrigued and visited the site. Quickly, I realized that there are some serious misconceptions about our organization and its members. I decided that a more realistic perspective was in order.

Roger Baldwin, Albert Desilver, and Crystal Eastman are generally credited with founding the ACLU in 1920, a period in America's history when civil rights were in a deplorable state. People like Upton Sinclair and Eugene Debs were pressing for the rights of the working class, the poor, and consumers in the face of virtual unbridled corporate avarice and its amoral pursuit of profit. Anti-war activists were jailed. Jim Crow ruled the south. Women had just gained the right to vote through the 19th Amendment, but still faced serious oppression in our patriarchal society. The Supreme Court had not once upheld the First Amendment guarantee to the right of free speech. The times were ripe for the founding of an organization called the American Civil Liberties Union, whose purpose was, and is, to protect the rights of the individual, the minority, the oppressed, the disabled, and the disenfranchised in America, regardless of religion, race, creed, sexual orienation, sex, or economic status.

Surprisingly, the Bill of Rights faced formidable opposition from many of our founding fathers. The Bill of Rights was an after-thought to our Constitution that was discussed in the Constitutional Convention, but not included until several years later. Even James Madison, who eventually bore much of the burden of sorting through the many proposed amendments, winnowing them down, and polishing their language to an acceptable form, was reluctant to add a Bill of Rights. Despite Madison's argument against the tyranny of the majority in Federalist Paper 51, he only wrote and endorsed the Bill of Rights because he knew that not enough states would ratify his beloved Constitution without express guarantees of the rights of the individual. Slavery was accepted by our nation at its inception, so at that time, the Bill of Rights did not even apply to many of our country's inhabitants, including both blacks and Native Americans. As Americans, our individual rights have been subject to attack or denial since our nation's founding. Individual rights in the "land of the free and the home of the brave" have been tenuous and have been applied selectively from the very start of our nation. Americans need the vigilance and protection of groups like the ACLU.

From its humble beginnings in 1920, the ACLU has risen to become a powerful advocate and guardian of the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments. 400,000 members-strong, the ACLU engages in approximately 6,000 legal actions each year, and has offices in virtually every state. It is a nonprofit and nonpartisan entity which receives no government funding, and is therefore subject to little or no undue influence (or corruption) by government entities or political parties. The raison d' etre of the ACLU, was, and is, to act to protect the civil liberties of everyone, including groups as difficult to endure as the Ku Klux Klan. Contrary to the rhetoric and belief of many amongst the Christian Right, the ACLU has even defended the rights of Christians to exercise and practice their beliefs.

The courts provide a ready vehicle for the ACLU to work to enforce our Constitutionally guaranteed rights. Despite the fact that he was often hostile to the rights of individuals, Chief Justice John Marshall cast the die of judicial power with the landmark decision of Marbury vs. Madison, and thus created an avenue for individuals to pursue their rights. In the 1803 ruling, the Supreme Court flexed its muscles for the first time as they declared a federal law unconstitutional. This set a landmark precedent that has enabled the Judicial Branch to take its place as the third equal partner in the system of checks and balances that comprise our republic, and prevent the Legislative and Executive Branches from becoming tyrannies.

Individuals facing injustices wrought by an imperfect system can turn to the judiciary for relief.

Recently, the Christian Right has spewed much propaganda concerning the "tyranny of the courts". Over the last century, unless one is hostile to freedom of the press, the freedom to worship (or not) freely without state intervention, the freedom to speak and write one's opinion, the freedom to protest government policy, the rights of the accused to due process, the rights of minorities to receive comparable educations to that of the majority, the rights of the disabled, the rights of gays, or freedom from censorship, one could hardly consider the Supreme Court to have acted as a tyrant. In fact, they have overturned many laws and lower court rulings that seriously violated the rights of individuals, and have issued many rulings to support the rights of individuals. The ACLU was involved in a number of these cases. In 1932, the Court held that under the 6th Amendment, Americans have a right to effective cousel (on behalf of indigent blacks in the Jim Crow south). DeJonge vs. Oregon upheld the right to assembly freely (on behalf of the Communist Party). Brown vs. the Board of Education ushered in a new era of civil rights when the Supreme Court declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954. The Court ruled in 1964 (New York Times vs. Sullivan) that a public official cannot successfully sue a newspaper for damages to their character without proving "actual malice". The Miranda vs. Arizona ruling in 1966 furthered the rights of the accused by guaranteeing them a right to counsel and the right against self incrimination. The Court ordered former President Nixon to hand over the Watergate tapes in 1974, and thus prevented the President from acting "above the law". Romer vs. Evans, rendered in 1996, determined that the state of Colorado could not use its state constitution to prevent the state or cities from enacting laws supporting gay rights. Romer represented another landmark civil rights decision. These are but a few of many examples of Supreme Court decisions, in which the ACLU has played a role, that have contributed to maintaining and enhancing the social justice of our republic.

The writers on the "Stop the ACLU" blog, and others who disseminate negative propaganda or opinions about the ACLU via the Internet, actually owe the ACLU a significant debt of gratitude for two principal reasons. First and foremost, since their reason for being is to "stop the ACLU", were it not for the ACLU, they would not exist. Secondly, the ACLU was involved in yet another landmark Supreme Court decision that helped to safeguard our civil liberties. In the 1997 Reno vs. ACLU case, the Court eradicated Congress' Communications Decency Act. The law was written to censor the Internet by banning "indecent" speech. Again the First Amendment, which is what gives bloggers their right to exist, was upheld when the Court ruled that "the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship". Those "activist judges legislating from the bench" again rendered a powerful decision that benefited the rights of everyone in our society, not just the "liberals".

The fact is, the ACLU is imperfect. All human endeavors and organizations are imperfect. The Judicial Branch, their primary vehicle to promote social justice is imperfect. However, so are the Legislative and Executive Branches. That is why our founding fathers had the foresight to create an intricate system of checks and balances, so that one Branch could not become a tyrant. While the ACLU and the Judicial Branch do not always "get it right", they have done far more to benefit our nation than to contribute to its detriment, and without them, our society would be far more brutal and inequitable. Many examples of social injustices throughout American history pre-dating the Populist movement, which spawned America's progressive social evolution, are testaments to this fact.

It is also a fact that American civil liberties are truly unique and valuable. Those rights are not irrevocable, and are subject to the perpetual assault of the natural corruption, will to power, and greed that evolves within a government (another imperfect human endeavor). The ACLU is the watchdog of these liberties, and over the last 85 years has done an outstanding job helping to preserve and enhance our individual freedoms. I feel grateful that the ACLU exists, and gladly contribute my time and money to help perpetuate its cause. I am also grateful that our independent judiciary exists to interpret the laws and Constitution governing our land. We have many blessings to count in this diverse nation, and the ACLU and the judiciary are two of them.