In Defense of America: Fighting A Different Kind of War, Without Becoming A Different Kind of Country with Anthony Romero, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
President Bush says the U.S. is fighting a "different kind of war," but does that mean it must become a different kind of country? Rather than justifying the usurpation of constitutional powers, this war demands that we stick to our core values more strongly than ever, says the ACLU. Romero shares examples from the legal war that he has been fighting at home.
Anthony D. Romero
Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation's premier defender of liberty and individual freedom. He took the helm of the 87-year-old organization just four days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Shortly afterward, the ACLU launched its national Safe and Free campaign to protect basic freedoms during a time of crisis. Under Romero's leadership, the ACLU gained court victories on the Patriot Act filed landmark litigation on the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, and filed the first successful legal challenge to the Bush administration's illegal NSA spying program.
Romero, an attorney with a history of public-interest activism, has presided over the most successful membership growth in the ACLU's history and more than doubled national staff and tripled the budget of the organization since he began his tenure. This unprecedented growth has allowed the ACLU to expand its nationwide litigation, lobbying and public education efforts, including new initiatives focused on racial justice, religious freedom, privacy, reproductive freedom and lesbian and gay rights.
Good evening and welcome to tonight's meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California. I am GregDalton, the Chief Operating Officer of the Club and your moderator for today. We also welcome ourlisteners on radio and invite everyone to join us at coomomwealth.org. Now it's my pleasure tointroduce our distinguished guest Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.Mr. Romero took the helm of the ACLU just four days before the September 11th attacks. Under his leadership the ACLU sued the FederalGovernment over the Patriot Act and filed litigation of the torture and abuse of detainees in US custody. Last year in a case brought by the ACLUagainst the NSA spying program, a federal court ruled unconstitutional the Bush administration's warrant less surveillance of American's phone callsand e-mails. Mr. Romero is the ACLUs sixth Executive Director and the first Latino and openly gay man to serve in that capacity. In 2005 he wasnamed one of Time Magazine's 25 most influential Hispanics in America.He has received dozens of public service awards and an Honorary Doctorate from the City University of New York, School of Law. Born in NewYork city to parents who hailed from Puerto Rico he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He is a graduate of Stanford UniversityLaw School and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy International Affairs. Please welcome Anthony Romero.Thank you very much for that kind introduction, it's wonderful to see many good friends in the audience and some new friends who I know I willmeet this evening. I want to thank you very much at the Commonwealth Club for inviting to one of my favorite cities in the world, San Francisco.Now a lot has changed since I lived in the Mission District during my last year in law school. San Francisco is known for its incredible views and Iwill never forget the view from my apartment, the view of the dumpster for the Sushi restaurant that was just downstairs from me. And it took me along time after that before I could eat raw fish again or especially even smell it and a lot has changed since then in San Francisco. They probably puta screen on the dumpster and sold it for a $1.6 million in change I would guess and the Mission is quite a different place now than it was when Ilived there in the late 1980s.But a lot has also stayed the same. The Bay Area is an energetic diverse progressive community, that boasts bustling ethnic and alternativeneighborhoods and probably the highest percentage of both would be hippies and would be dotcom billionaires of any city in the world. Nothingagainst the rest of this country but when I hear Conservative commentators talk about the Real America I want them to come to San Francisco andsee how great the real America can be. America is at its best when we are confident and optimistic and I think that those two trades are ones thatdescribe and characterize the residents of the Bay Area. And no wonder this is a state where someone who can barely speaks English and hashardly a friend, and arrived with nothing but a pair of biceps and grow up to be Governor and marry a Kennedy and in fact I think a good deal ofthe problems we have today stem from lack of confidence.When decisions are based on fear and insecurity they are bad decisions and for the last six years our elected officials have been making decisionsbased on fear. This is what I found ironic, the missionaries of American exceptionalism, people whose blindness allow them to see only what theyconsider best about the United States and to ignore the harsher realities of the nation. They always seem to be afraid of gays, of Mexicans, ofArabs, of change, of ideas. Whereas the people I work with were paid to spend our nights and days wrestling with some of the darkest parts of ournation are profoundly optimistic. Having spent the last six years traveling America as Executive Director of the ACLU and the last two yearsresearching my new book In Defense Of Our America I am now more optimistic than ever. I am still scared about what the Bush administrationmay do next, but I am confident nonetheless. Confident because for all the change in our nation, in our world I think there is still a fundamentaloptimism here and a respect for the values and liberties that make America unique.If you listen to the President you will hear that everything changed on September 11th. And now certainly, I am personally in favor of change. I ama gay Puerto Rican man, if America hadn't changed dramatically in the last generation, there is a good chance I would be a waiter like my father orwork in a factory like my grandmother, instead of speaking before you here today. But when President Bush makes things different, he shows aparticular genius for making them worse. He correctly points out that the war on terrorism is a different kind of war. And because of that he claimsthe right to be a different kind of President and he certainly is different though not in the way he often means. In his world being a different kind ofPresident means making America a different kind of nation.The question for us as Americans is do we want to be a different kind of America? Once a sanctuary for refugees and political prisoners PresidentBush would have America now hold prisoners indefinitely without habeas corpus, win confessions through torture and try prisoners in kangaroocourts called military commissions. Once a model of democracy, President Bush would have the President rule without check. Ignoring laws passedby Congress, denying or even taking away the jurisdiction of our judges. And concealing every action from the public eye.Once a model of tolerance and a vast laboratory for the free exchange of ideas. President Bush will now have his bar scholars from foreigncountries, close off the free press from the governing process and spy on those who dare to disagree with the government. Now the President andhis supporters don't have enough confidence in the strength and the innate decency of the American people and the power of the ideas upon whichthis great nation was founded. To trust us to win the War on Terror in our way. Their doubts about Democracy are as great as the fear of terroritself. And so the decisions they make are just simply wrong. The battle against the Jihad truly is a war for hearts and minds and we are losing it myfriends. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world including 10 million of them in the United States. We are losing the battle of ideas.According to current surveys, Muslims overwhelmingly reject Al Qaeda and attacks on civilian targets but today almost three quarters of thepeople in Pakistan and Indonesia, the world's most populist Muslim nations believe that the US has committed to weakening in dividing Islam.And a strong majority of Muslims in Europe now also have an unfavorable view of the United States. Last week was the 20th anniversary of aspeech by another optimistic Californian, one I don't often cite. But do you remember Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall. And one thing aboutRonald Reagan that I will say even when he was rallying America against an adversary with a million and a half troops aimed at the WestGerman border and 20,000 tanks ready to role, he always conveyed the sense that we would prevail. And along with a string of the post warpresidents he was able to face down an impeccable flow while largely preserving the basic civil liberties that this President, our President nowviews as obstacles to winning the War on Terror.Rather than a harming people at home and angering people abroad we won the cold war and brought people together. By contrast whenPresident Bush questions the strength of our people and of our government, of our system of checks and balances. He is animated not byoptimism, but by cynicism. What else could you call his efforts to infect in American people and an American government with that fear? And itworked for a while my friends. There have been some dark nights over the last six years, there had been times just like when you are sick or youare caring for a loved one who is ill, just when you when your head tells you that dawn is yet to come, that your heart begins to doubt. That thosewere moments that we also experience as American people.But lately there has been a new light on the horizon, some of it shining from the most unexpected of sources. For having been so long and comingevery ray of light seems twice as bright. The Bush administration's parallel system of justice that un-American mixture of stolen and grandiose ofexecutive power, of torture and illegal wire taps, of suppressed votes and unbridled partisanship is finally being dismantled brick by brick by acoalition of conscience committed to the constitution into the rule of law.Here is some examples of progress that I would point to you today. Last month in two separate military courts, judges threw road blocks in frontof the administration attempts to establish a heads I win, tails you lose military commission system for prisoners to attain the Guantanamo Bay.Just last week we saw the fourth circuit court of appeals, the ruling that the Executive Branch cannot arbitrarily and indefinitely confine a US legalpermanent resident to prison even when subjected to plotting heinous crimes. The US circuit court judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote "ThePresident cannot eliminate constitutional protections with the stroke of a pen by proclaiming a civilian even a criminal civilian as an enemycombatant subject to indefinite military detention." And though it appears that it may take the new majority in Congress, it may take them longerto lead us to the promise land than it took Moses we are at least not longer going backwards.Earlier this month the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would bring habeas corpus back to Guantanamo Bay or anywhereelse where the captives are confined. We read recently a Bob Barr a deeply Conservative former Member of Congress and a friend of theACLU who is now called in for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. But perhaps most refreshingly with hearing amajor architect of the war in Iraq speak eloquently and persuasively about the rule of law and America's role in the world. On meet of press lastweek former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "If it were up to me I will close Guantanamo not tomorrow, but this afternoon and I would notlet any of those people go, I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system." Every morning I pick up apaper and some authoritarian figure, some persons somewhere is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds.So essentially we have shaken the belief that the world had an America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open in creatingthings like the military commission. Now former Secretary of State Colin Powell nailed it perfectly. We lead the world and we win wars byholding tight to our principles and by proving that we are a nation of laws and justice. We do it by making decisions rooted in our confidence andthe values that make our nation great and in that spirit our next priority at the ACLU is to bring habeas corpus back to American justice system.Habeas corpus is arguably the most fundamental right of American citizenship, of citizenship of any free nation. It simply means that thegovernment cannot lock you up for no reason and keep you as long as it wants. But now the Bush administration holds that they have all theyneed to designate you as an enemy combatant with no public evidence or judges finding of probable cause and they can treat you roughly thesame way that Stalin treated the dissidents. Unlimited detention, isolation from families, attorneys and from human rightsorganizations and confessions one through physical abuse or convictions based on hearsay and rumor.When the Habeas Corpus rights was stripped from the detainees in Guantanamo through the Military Commissions Act, we realized at this in factwas a quite dark moment for the American Democracy. So we launched and are mounting a day of actions on June 26th in Washington DC tosave habeas corpus and to rewrite the Military Commission's Act to reflect our nation's basic values and to make it a more valuable tool in theWar on Terror. Thus far we have more than 2200 individuals who have registered for this day of action in Washington, from every state acrossthe country including individuals from our Northern California affiliate who have organized the delegation to Washington.Speaking of our Northern California affiliate with Maya Harris and my colleagues in the room, which I hope, you all are supporting generouslyand if you are not doing so already I will encourage you to do so at the end of the event. They have joined the national office in a very importantlawsuit that we recently filed that we believe protect civil liberties by making it clear that private companies cannot profit from illegal acts. In thislawsuit Mohammed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan. We are taking an important first step forward in our battle against the practice of extraordinaryrendition. When we kidnap and picked people off of the streets of the foreign countries and transport them to other countries where we knowthey will be tortured. This practice has been given dubiously label of extraordinary rendition.Knowingly profiting from torture is immoral and illegal and private companies are not above the law. Corporations that choose and chooseknowingly to support torture in the face of international law and common decency can and should be held accountable. Without participation ofcorporations like Jeppesen the CIA's rendition program would never help get off the ground and three men who are clients in that lawsuit mightnow be free and might behold. ACLU litigators politicians and public figures courts all around the country all of these are coalescing into abroad movement to take America back to its proper place. The strength of America, however, does not lie in its elites. It lies with the Americanpeople and their ability to respond to extraordinary pressures in extraordinary ways to quietly and confidently accept the responsibilities of ourage. And for all the praise I have lavished on the Bay area, these are qualities you find in quantity not just in California but in every state across the nation.As I mentioned earlier I spent last three years working on this book with my co-author Dina Temple-Raston from NPR, it's called in Defense ofOur America. It tell us stories of courageous people fighting bigotry, religious extremism and a repressive government that tries to make undercut,the basic values of our Democracy. We take as self evident that the guarantees and the Bill of Rights in the Constitution are not just paperguarantees that some long dead founding father wrote on parchment. Those are guarantees that we must live up to every day in our life, for everyperson in America.The book took me to Kansas where I met one of our clients. The developmentally disabled 18-year-old Matthew Limon who engaged in aconsensual sexual experience with a boy three years his junior. And because he was 18 and the boy was just shy of his 15th birthday, MathewLimon received a 17 year sentence for the sexual act he committed with that other younger boy. Had he been a straight teenager with a youngergirl, the maximum sentence that Mathew Lemon would have suffered or have been given would have been 15 months. The fact that he wassentenced to 17 years for us raised significant questions about equal protection of the laws.The Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline wrote in a brief saying that treating Mathew like a straight kid would "Begin a toppling of the dominos,that would end in three party marriages, incestuous marriages and to child brides, he wrote." But thanks to Mathew's courage and his persistenceand the hard work of activists in the Kansas ACLU and the lesbian and gay rights project of the ACLU, we won. We were able to releaseMathew after him serving five years in prison. The Kansas court unanimously ruled that the grossly desperate sentences violating equal protectionclause. They rejected fear for common sense and Mathew was set free to go back to his family. The book took me also to the University ofCalifornia, Santa Cruz, not far from here where I met a great patriot, a young man called Kot Hordynski. The son of two Polish immigrants whofled communism seeking freedom in America. Kot envisions and embodies the American dream. He went to college, he engaged his classmates in a longer discussion of what America should be like. He took issue with the military recruitment on college campuses and he and hisfellow classmates organized pamphlets and tables and information and protests against military recruitment at UC Santa Cruz and then one yearlater on Christmas break Kot Hordynski turns on his e-mail only to find that he has been a labeled a credible threat against the nation and enteredinto the Department of Defense Talon database and has been the subject of Pentagon's surveillance. Now imagine the greatest military on earthare afraid of college kids like Kot Hordynski but Kot and his friends persisted, they believed in America and they what was right. They refused toback down and they turned to the ACLU for help.The book took me to Dover, Pennsylvania where I met a remarkable woman Bert Spahr reminds you of all of the science teachers you hatedwhile you were in High School and loved when you graduated. A woman with a practical hair cut and comfortable shoes, the size of a large collie.And when the Discovery Institute tried to find the jurisdiction where they wish to insert religion into the public school's science classrooms onething they didn't count on was that Bert Spahr would stand up to them. She and her fellow science teachers fought to keep fundamentalist religionin the guise of intelligent design out of their classrooms and with the support of the Pennsylvania ACLU, they won a significant victory for those ofus who are eager to keep our bright line between the separation of church and state.This Republican appointed judge in that federal case wrote "The students, parents and teachers of the Dover Area School District deservedbetter than to be dragged into the legal maelstrom which is resulting utter waste of money and personal resources", he wrote. As I told Bert Spahrpeople like me have the easy job. The hard part is finding people like Bert Spahr who have the courage to stand up but every where I go findthem indeed we do people like Mathew, like Kot, like Bert who have the courage to fight for our America and sometimes in the strangest ofplaces you find this patriotism and this understanding of core American values. I met a trucker at the sports bar in Great Bend Kansas whothanked me for fighting for America on a different front.The young soldier with whom him I went swimming in the borders of Guantanamo Bay told me I believe in our President but I am really glad youare here Anthony, you have a job to do. True patriots are everywhere and they are not afraid. In small towns and big cities all across Americaeven in Guantanamo Bay there is a new young growing majority who share a quite confidence in the American system. They and we were allscared for a while and some bad decisions got made, but I believe my friends that we are getting our footing back. We are remembering who weare as Americans and in a world where so much has changed in the last 20 years, one thing has stayed the same, one thing that fills me withconfidence and pride, that the American people truly understand what makes this nation great. That in a country with no unifying language, nounifying culture, no unifying religion the one thing that does bind us as Americans is our commitment to the rule of law and to some basic valuesinscribed in some fundamental founding documents. That when we salute the flag and sing this star spangled banner, that when we go to groundzero site and feel patriotic, that those emotions are coursed through our bodies have to do about American values that have defined us forcenturies. That they are values like innocent till proving guilty, the right to attorney, the right to rebut evidence against you in a court of law, therights of due process, the rights of equal protection of the laws those are what make this country great.And I am confident that no matter what the challenges and no matter what the ideologues in this or the next administration with the help of goodAmericans like you and the true patriots like Kot and Bert and others that we will make sure that America stays true to its great principles. I lookforward to your questions and to do a discussion with you.Thank you very, very much.