Before he was selected in 2001 as the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero's name was one I was extremely unfamiliar with. Since his appointment, I've come to associate his name with controversy and dissent -- within the ACLU structure. I yawned at the fact that this liberal org hired an ambitious, young and gay executive director, because Romero had no gay advocacy track record that anyone was aware of.
But I paid close attention when it was revealed in 2004 that in order to accept grants from the Ford Foundation and other, Romero had advised and quietly agreed to troubling language guiding the funds that the ACLU wound "not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state." Sounds like trampling on free speech rights, to me, and it was so odd the head of the ACLU would consent to it.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Mike brought home a hard copy of the April issue of California Lawyer, with an essentially puff profile on Romero. Many of his serious civil libertarian and organizational missteps are mentioned, while the writing crackles more than it should for a legal magazine:
If Romero's arrival at the national office had been the opening scenes of a Hollywood movie, you would have rolled your eyes at the setup. On September 4, 2001, Romero became executive director of an institution synonymous with defense of the Bill of Rights. [...]
By contrast, Romero in 2001 was practically a kid: 35 years old, energetic and skinny, with faint acne scars. Squint your eyes slightly and he still looks to be about 19.
In an organization heavily represented by patrician WASPs and Jews, Romero was an outsider from a working-class Puerto Rican family. And he is openly gay. Despite support from outgoing executive director Ira Glasser, Romero was eyed with suspicion by some of the Old Guard. The kid seemed too soft, not ready for the hurly burly of the national office. [...]
When he arrived, Romero says, "I didn't know the national security issues. I didn't even know what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was." But he quickly got up to speed, rallied his stunned and somewhat frightened staff, and mounted a counterattack. [...]
The narrative of the profile, both regarding Romero's personal upbringing and resume and his bumpy tenure at the helm of the ACLU, is one of overcoming big obstacles and moving upward. I would have liked the writer to exhibit deep skepticism about the supposed new warm fuzzy feelings from some previous detractors or former critics.
More than cursory butt kickin' related to Romero would have served California Lawyer magazine, and general readers such as myself, better.
Speaking of holding Romero and the ACLU to the highest ethical standards, Wendy Kaminer, one of his detractors and a former board member, in her blog over at the Atlantic web site, in late March brought attention to more recent missteps by Romero:
For the ACLU's sake, I hope it has very good lawyers representing it in what TPM accurately calls a potentially explosive investigation of ACLU's alleged involvement in outing CIA officers to the 9/11 defendants [...] .
Patrick Fitzgerald has been appointed to lead the investigation, and Isikoff writes, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has confirmed that the ACLU "hired private investigators to track down CIA officers involved in aggressive interrogation tactics. 'It would be an essential part of any defense to cross-examine the perpetrators of torture,' (Romero) says, adding, 'To our knowledge, the 9/11 defendants were not told the identities of the CIA officers.'"
This is an astonishing and incredibly reckless admission. First, if you're under investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald you should probably exercise your right to remain silent, or, at least, clear any statements with your attorney, as I imagine Romero, a law school graduate, has belatedly learned. [...]
Clearly, there is no love between Kaminer and Romero, and I'd love to hear what she has to say about California Lawyer's look at Romero and his leadership. I'll keep an eye on her blog, in the hopes she weighs in on the puff profile.