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Drone Use: Obama Administration Needs Rules, Transparency

22 Jun

The following op-ed was written by ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty and appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Another View, “Government Needs Rules, Transparency in Drone Use.”

The United States military and Central Intelligence Agency are using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including American citizens.  While President Obama’s top security adviser, John Brennan, finally acknowledged this practice in April, these extrajudicial killings are still shrouded in secrecy.   It is only possible to say with confidence that in recent months drones have been used to kill individuals who have been “nominated” for and placed on a secret “kill list” often with the personal involvement of President Obama.  The United States has used drones for this purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our country has been at war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war.  American citizens have been among those targeted and among those who are among the collateral damage of such operations.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for greater transparency from the Obama administration.  A good start would be for the Obama administration to release the Justice Department memos related to this secret process, including any that purport to explain the legal authority for the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects.

Drones already come in many sizes and appear to be a technological fix for some difficult operational and political issues in the war on terrorism.   Drones can be controlled from great distances, thereby protecting the lives of their operators, if not Afghan or Yemeni noncombatants; a fact Al Qaeda recruiters point out.   Drones may be more precise than conventional fighter attacks, thereby offering the opportunity to reduce the loss of innocent lives, but apparently sometimes President Obama makes exceptions to this goal.  Chillingly, drones kill and maim but don’t take prisoners, thereby reducing the pressure to examine our government’s policy of indefinite detention of some prisoners in the everlasting war on terrorism.

There are undoubtedly legitimate and legal uses for this technology.  But like other technologies, such as “enhanced interrogation methods”, use of global positioning systems to track an individual’s whereabouts 24/7, data mining of financial and other personal records and online activity, or even new full body scanning devices at the airport, drone technology does not absolve leaders in the federal executive branch, from their responsibility of using it in lawful ways that are consistent with our values.

When one examines this issue it is clear that drones have allowed targeted killings to become an important tactic in the war on terrorism without the public’s knowledge of basic information or the checks and balances our constitution requires.  Drones may have severely impacted Al Qaeda in the short term, but they may have also made more difficult a long term counterterrorism strategy utilizing America’s great strength – our belief that the rule of law and civil liberties will protect our families’ freedoms from government abuse.

Polls show that Americans as a whole, if not most ACLU members, support the use of drones for targeted killings by a wide margin.   The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to allow drones for law enforcement and perhaps military purposes in our country.  Hopefully the buzz you hear above your head at a cookout within the next few years will be a mosquito and not a drone.

ACLU of Wisconsin goes to residents for information concerning Milwaukee police strip searches

2 Apr

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has been trying to investigate the policies and practices of the Milwaukee Police Department regarding strip searches.  The ACLU’s investigation began after the MPD in March acknowledged that Milwaukee police officers may have been conducting unauthorized strip searches and illegal body cavity searches on the public streets.

On March 28, 2012 ACLU made a public records request to the MPD for copies of documents such as orders, memos and report that may help us to assess whether the department is following its own strip search and body cavity search procedures.  The department has not yet produced the documents requested or denied our request.

Because of the delay on the part of MPD and the public interest in this matter, the ACLU of Wisconsin has begun seeking alternative sources of information.

The ACLU is asking citizens for copies of any strip search authorization reports that MPD may have issued to them.  MPD procedures require MPD give the subject of a strip search a copy of a Strip Search Authorization Report.  The police ask the subject of the search to sign and affix a fingerprint to the report.

The ACLU is publicizing their request by means of social media and flyers distributed on the street, in public places, and through community organizations. While it is impossible to know how many Strip Search Authorization Reports the MPD issued by asking citizens, it should be possible to learn relevant information about MPD search practices.  The ACLU has promised to respect the privacy of those who submit copies of forms. The ACLU hopes that more information from the MPD will be forthcoming.  The ACLU will share the facts regarding any possible pattern or practice of improper strip searches with appropriate authorities and the public.

Milwaukee residents living in every neighborhood deserve high quality professional police service

2 Apr

Milwaukee residents living in every neighborhood deserve high quality professional police service. No one, regardless of where they live, should have to put up with police misconduct. Recent allegations  that several officers in District Five carried out unauthorized strip searches and illegal body cavity searches need to be investigated carefully, fairly, and comprehensively. While it is important to determine whether or not individual officers violated department policies or state law or civil rights laws, it is equally important that the department evaluate its own policies, practices, and strategies to see if they may have undermined police service and civil liberties.

It is in the interest of residents and the department that the department responds to the alleged incidents of police misconduct with candor, transparency, and self-evaluation. Without violating the due process rights of the officers involved and regardless of the outcome of investigations into their conduct, the department can learn from this controversy and provide better service in the future.

The department must consider what impact its own policies, practices, and strategies may have on the delivery of police services.

For instance, incredible as it sounds, if the officers were truly ignorant of the policies or the differences between a pat down or frisk, a strip search, or a body cavity search, then the department has to explain how its training and supervision failed. Is their training forgotten or ignored when officers detain residents on our public streets?

The department must also evaluate its proactive policing strategy to see if it makes incidents of police misconduct more likely to occur. Under this strategy the Milwaukee Police Department made 240,000 traffic and subject stops in 2010. Traffic stop figures through October 2011 show the department will have made a similar number of stops in 2011, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This extraordinary number of stops obviously increases the opportunity for interactions between officers and residents to go awry. What’s more as Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn told the newspaper, “Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people.”  The department should evaluate what message it is sending to officers when its proactive policing strategy disregards a person’s innocence. The message at best says civil liberties are expendable.

We pointed out in an op ed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that the department should also revisit its decision to create the Gang/Drug Unit when the Metropolitan Investigations Division, formed in August, 2010. It appears that the implicated officers including a sergeant belonged to District Five’s anti-gang unit. Many police managers across the country have moved away from special gang and drug units, especially after revelations of widespread abuse by such units of the Los Angeles Police Department. Perhaps, there is a legitimate use for such units, but it appears the type and level of supervision given to Milwaukee’s anti-gang unit was deficient.

Finally, because metropolitan Milwaukee is a hyper-segregated area along racial and income lines, one cannot address policing without addressing civil rights. In the light of the department’s inability to use traffic stop data to identify possible racially biased policing, it is imperative that the department clarify how it is identifying biased officers. We don’t know if these District Five officers are biased, but bias could be a contributing factor. The department needs to be more aggressive in identifying and remedying individual or systemic bias.

The Milwaukee Police Department has an opportunity to evaluate its policies, practices and strategies following the allegations regarding misconduct by officers from District Five. If it simply investigates the officers, it will be setting Milwaukee up for more frustration. Chief Flynn has the capacity to exercise leadership. He can demonstrate that the department will address possible systemic problems. If so, this controversy may be an opportunity to further improve police community relations.

If you have been the target of racial profiling in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin, tell the ACLU of Wisconsin your story.

Republican Leadership Abuses of Power Continue with Redistricting Secrecy, Cancelled Hearings

20 Feb

Here we go again. Questions still remain about the violation of open meetings laws surrounding the state budget last year. But now with headlines describing secrecy oaths around the redistricting process and cancelling public hearings over the controversial mining bill, state legislative leaders are abusing their power and not listing to voters.

Groups around the state are reacting to last week’s decision by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to dissolve the special Senate Committee on Mining, thereby cancelling public hearings in Platteville and Ashland. Under the guise of job creation, Senate leadership has once again shown their disdain for a fair and open process of lawmaking where the voices of people affected by proposed laws are heard.

This action comes quickly on the heels of Thursday’s news that federal judges chastised Wisconsin Republican leaders for the secrecy surrounding their post-census redistricting plan. Until Wisconsin has a better plan for redistricting (such as a nonpartisan panel of experts creating district maps rather than elected officials), district maps will always be drawn in favor of those in power. But voters should have even less confidence in legislators who assert that something as important as the drawing of legislative maps is something that can be withheld from the public on the basis of an oath of confidentiality between Republican legislators and their attorneys.

We don’t know if that judge’s decision sent enough of a clear message that legislation should be developed in a transparent manner where public has a voice in the process. But Joint Finance Committee chair Rep. Robin Vos nearly cut off a JFC hearing at 5 p.m. on Friday in which people had traveled since well before dawn and waited all day to testify about how the mining bill would impact the environment in their local or tribal communities. After protestations from the crowd, Vos expedited the testimonies by lining up members of the public and allowing them their two minutes to speak.

Democracy lives beyond closed doors of private attorney’s offices and it exists outside of usual business hours. This news continues a second year of an abuse of power and people demand accountability.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

Warrantless GPS Tracking is a Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights: SCOTUS Decision Cheered by Privacy Defenders

23 Jan

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that if police attach a Global Positioning System tracking device to a car, the Fourth Amendment requires that they get a warrant to do so. The decision, United States v. Jones, protects privacy rights against one intrusive way the police use GPS technology and answers a question the Wisconsin Supreme Court sidestepped in State v. Sveum in 2010. Read more about this privacy victory in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

“Police should have probable cause that a crime has been or is likely to be committed before using GPS tracking technology,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “The ACLU of Wisconsin agrees that without a judge’s agreement, police use of warrantless GPS tracking would be a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. The details of our private lives are revealed by our movements. Allowing police the power to obtain information on the location of anyone’s car and movements, for any reason or for no reason at all, without a valid warrant, is unconstitutional.”

In February 2010, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in State of Wisconsin v. Sveum, urging the Court to hold that attaching a GPS device was a “search or seizure” requiring a warrant under the Wisconsin constitution as well as the Fourth Amendment. The brief warned that approving warrantless GPS could allow police to engage in fishing expeditions to obtain a detailed picture of someone’s personal associations by identifying the churches, bars, protests or doctor’s offices a person visited.

In its decision in July 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sidestepped the question of whether there are any constitutional limits on police use of global positioning system devices to track people in their cars. Instead, the state’s high court decided that a court order obtained by the police satisfied the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Today’s unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court emphatically answers the question the Wisconsin courts left open: the Fourth Amendment protects privacy against intrusive GPS tracking.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

ACLU of WI: DOA Must Rewrite Rules Restricting First Amendment Activity at Capitol

14 Dec

Today the ACLU of Wisconsin issued a statement regarding continued objections to the state Department of Administration’s new restrictions on protest rights at the Capitol and said the rules may subject the state to legal action. This week, the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin voted unanimously to authorize appropriate legal action to challenge the new Department of Administration’s policies that restrict First Amendment rights at the state Capitol. This month, the Walker administration’s DOA staff conducted an “education period” which officially ends on December 16th, leaving concerned citizens unsure of how the new restrictions will be enforced.

“Since the first DOA information session, unanswered questions about the constitutionality of these new rules as well as Capitol Police enforcement and staffing policies continue to pile up,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty. “Thursday is the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights and Wisconsinites will remember that our treasured First Amendment rights must be protected at the Capitol. The Department of Administration needs to re-visit these policies and remove anything that will not withstand a constitutional challenge.”

While the ACLU of Wisconsin recognizes that reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on Capitol building, grounds and other state facilities’ use are permissible, the new policies are not reasonable. The permitting and liability scheme will have the effect of chilling First Amendment activity at the Capitol. The policies also will lead to arbitrary decisions by the DOA and law enforcement regarding who may exercise their rights to demonstrate and petition their state government.

Its flaws include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Permits are required of groups as small as four individuals.
  • State bureaucrats have too much discretion to assign liability or limit permits to demonstrators.
  • Further, state bureaucrats can hold groups organizing demonstrations liable for the actions of others beyond their control and groups will be held liable for the cost of police and custodial staffing decisions made by the state. Any advance police staffing decisions will be based on the content of demonstrators’ speech as they assess the potential for conflict with controversial or unpopular groups. This will be especially burdensome to poor or controversial groups and the state provides no waiver in such circumstances.
  • The policy as written requires any individual seeking to distribute handbills or flyers to get a permit.

The ACLU of Wisconsin urges the Department of Administration to not enforce the new policies until they are rewritten to pass constitutional muster.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

We Must Now Reclaim Our Liberties: Ten Years After 9/11

10 Sep

Ten years after the horrific events of September 11, 2001 the American people are right to remember and honor those who died in at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.  The ten-year mark of the 9/11 attacks also importantly provides an opportunity to reflect on the turbulent decade behind us, and to recommit ourselves to values that define our nation, including justice, due process, and the rule of law.

Nearly ten years ago on September 23, 2001, I wrote in the Journal Sentinel, “Americans, in and out of the Congress, will have to evaluate carefully, ‘anti-terrorism’ proposals that may have an impact on the civil liberties that protect our freedom.”   Much of the government’s response to the attacks against us was done without proper deliberation.  Much of the government’s response was initiated without the benefit of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation and report.  It is no wonder that we are still facing challenges, despite a “global war on terrorism” that seems to be an everywhere and forever war.

The records of the Bush and the Obama administrations reveal many actions that have undermined our ability to remain safe and free.  Congress has done no better.  Some in Congress are attempting to undermine the Constitution by giving the president a blank check for a worldwide, endless war.  This would be a clear abdication of Congress’s role in our system of checks and balances – the Constitution clearly gives only Congress the power to declare war.

Targeted killings in the name of our security continue without any way for us to know whether people our government kills are truly a threat to our country. Prisoners who have never had a trial are still held at Guantanamo.  Although evidence of torture and death at U.S.-run detention facilities like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and CIA “black sites” exists, no single victim of torture has had a day in court due to the “states secrets” privilege and immunity doctrines our government invokes to defend itself from being held accountable for these human rights abuses.

And, we need not look overseas to see how American freedoms are threatened in ways that may not make us safer, much less safe.

At the Mitchell Field, you get to choose between full-body scanners that reveal near-naked outlines of our bodies or an offensive pat-down by TSA workers. Phone companies are willing to hand over your call records to the government without warrants or suspicion of criminal activity of individuals. Taking pictures of landmarks is enough to make you the subject of a “suspicious activity report” in a terrorist behavior data base. Surveillance by the government has tracked racial minorities, religious groups, peace protesters, college students and journalists.

Government policies that target groups by race, ethnicity or religion are counterproductive and make us less safe.  Experienced intelligence and law-enforcement officials agree that profiling based on race, religion and ideology is ineffective, inefficient, and counter-productive.

This anniversary is a fitting time to remember and stirs deep emotion and concern among our fellow Americans.   This is entirely legitimate and to be expected ten years into a war. But, despite the passing of a decade and the changing of leadership in the White House and Congress, we continue to allow the fear of terrorism to cloud our political discourse.   We must have the courage to affirm what makes  America great.  What I wrote in 2001 is still valid: “Freedom is more than just a goal; it is the bulwark of our democracy and the spirit that lifts individuals and families in countless ways.  It makes us safer and stronger.”

– Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin

Read the report: A Call to Courage – Reclaiming Our Liberty Ten Years After 9/11 from the national American Civil Liberties Union

This opinion piece was also featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Crossroads on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

Ethics Files Less Open in Budget Provision

15 Jun

While the Assembly takes up the state budget today and discusses the state’s near fiscal and policy future, do you ever wonder if your state legislator has a financial relationship with a big polluter or a bank getting a government bailout? How about a financial relationship with an ideological think tank? How about a noisy night club down your block?

A majority of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee wanted you to keep wondering.

Those legislators have approved a budget provision that would require you to travel to Madison in order to inspect or copy any of the statements of economic interest filed by state public officials, including all state legislators.

Currently, nearly 2,400 state public officials, candidates and nominees file statements of economic interest with the Government Accountability Board each year. The GAB on its website indicates that it “experiences virtually 100% compliance with the law.” On average, according to the website, the public examined 500 statements of economic interest each year.

Currently these statements are not online, but you can search indexes to them on the GAB’s website at If there is something that interests you, you can request that the board mail or email you a copy of a public official’s complete statement.

You get to decide what seems significant. But you should know the current law requires the board to inform the public officials of your request. You may not inspect statements anonymously through the GAB. It is not an easy to use system – it’s even a little intimidating.

Copies of statements of economic interest have been posted online by private advocacy groups. This posting would not stop under the budget proposal approved by the Joint Finance Committee. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin believes that it would violate the constitutional rights of these groups to censor them. But the public should not have to rely on private groups for public information held by the public GAB.

If the full Legislature passes this new obstacle to financial disclosure in the budget and Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t veto it, ordinary Wisconsin residents will find it nearly impossible to access these documents.
There is no evidence that the limited online access to this information has been abused. Given the compliance rate with the law filing isn’t a burden, and even if it were, restricting access would not reduce any burden on filers.

As in most online posting of existing information the cost must be minimal. When men and women enter public service, they know that the public has a right to know about their significant financial relationships. Some people choose not to enter public service to avoid disclosure.

Apparently the reason for decreasing the already limited transparency of this reporting process is to save the public officials from embarrassment or the necessity of explaining their financial relationships to their constituents and voters.

Wisconsin residents deserve good government. They deserve to be able to make informed decisions about matters relevant to the public interest.

They have a right to speak freely with the knowledge of the contents of the statements of economic interest. Requiring Wisconsinites to travel to Madison to examine and copy these public records is an affront.
The Legislature should reconsider this scheme to subvert the liberties of Wisconsin residents.

This op ed, written by ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty, has been updated since its original publication in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 11, 2011.

Chippewa Valley: Chapter Volunteers Cheer on the ACLU at Bobfest North

1 Jun

On Saturday May 21 the Chippewa Valley chapter of the ACLU of Wisconsin sponsored a table at Fighting Bobfest North, the northern version of the progressive festival that has been a feature of the Baraboo area each fall for nearly a decade. Chapter volunteers met over 150 people from northwest Wisconsin and from around the state, answered questions and encouraged people to join as card-carrying members. It was great to meet members in the area.

Shu-Chuan, Ann and Stacy
Many people who spoke to us had questions and comments along a central theme: the abuse of power in Wisconsin and on a federal level. Even though some said that they had never felt such a divided Wisconsin, they came to Fighting Bobfest North to learn, get inspired and find some rejuvenation to keep the dialogue going in their home communities.
Photos – Jeremy Gragert
Thank you to everyone who stopped by the ACLU table to share your thoughts. If there are tabling opportunities in your area, let us know how you can help with our statewide outreach. Contact the ACLU of Wisconsin headquarters in Milwaukee at

Open Meetings Law Violation Court Decision is About Checking the Abuse of Power

27 May

On May 26, Dane County Circuit Judge Mariann Sumi invalidated a bill passed by the legislature in March, taking away most public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Judge Sumi based her decision on evidence that lawmakers violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law when it voted on the bill with less than two hours public notice.

But the Judge’s decision has been criticized by political leaders including Senator Glenn Grothman who said legislators were being told what to do by an “ideologue judge” and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald questioned the separation of powers of a judge trumping “two democratically elected branches of government.”  (Sumi was originally appointed by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson in 1998 and has since been reelected by voters.)

“Criticisms by legislators, attorneys and others that it was wrong for Judge Sumi to invalidate a state law – some going so far as to claim that judges have no business reviewing legislative enactments – show a shocking disregard of our system of checks and balances, and are dangerous to a society built upon the rule of law,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty.

As Judge Sumi wrote in her decision, in 1803 the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that it is “emphatically the province and the duty of the courts to say what the law is.” That bedrock principle has governed our nation for centuries.

“The checks and balances built into our constitution make sure that no one branch of government – not the executive, or the legislature, or the judiciary – usurps power,” said Ahmuty. “In this system, it is the role of the courts to ensure that the actions of the legislature and the governor comport with the constitution and the laws. While there may be limited areas where separation-of-powers principles clearly prevent the courts from interfering with exclusively legislative or executive functions, this is not one of those areas.

“Judge Sumi did not ask that anyone challenge the collective bargaining bill or that the challenge end up in her court. But judges have to decide the cases brought before them. Doing so is not “judicial activism” – it is doing the job of a judge. Even those who disagree with her decision should thank Judge Sumi for fulfilling her constitutional duty, rather than fulminating about the bogeyman of so-called activist judges.”