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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.

ACLU Online News – national issues update

31 Aug

August 28, 2009 – ACLU Online News

Attorney General Holder Announces Appointment of Special Prosecutor to Investigate Torture

On Monday, the ACLU obtained the detailed official record of the CIA’s torture program.

>>Take action and learn more.

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder made the long-awaited announcement of the appointment of a special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary investigation into whether federal laws were violated during the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody.

Attorney General Holder said his decision to appoint a special prosecutor was in part influenced by the contents of a CIA inspector general report made public the same day as part of an ACLU lawsuit. The IG report documents in disturbing detail the level of the torture committed and the extent to which laws were broken.

As anyone who has seen the details of this appalling report can tell you, this investigation is necessary and long overdue, and Attorney General Holder should be commended for taking this important first step. However, the very limited scope of the investigation he launched is nowhere near as thorough and broad as the torture investigation America really needs.

According to early reports, prosecutor John Durham’s mandate will be limited to roughly a dozen cases in which CIA interrogators and contractors may have violated U.S. torture laws and other statutes. Moreover, Durham will conduct a ‘preliminary’ investigation meant to determine whether a full investigation is appropriate.

In addition to the long-awaited IG report, the ACLU also received more than 60 documents, dating from 2002 through 2007, in response to two ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for documents related to the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody overseas. Included are memos, letters, and documents between the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the CIA about the torture and interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody.

Collectively, the OLC documents, along with the CIA Inspector General report, further underscore the need for a full investigation into the torture of prisoners and those who authorized it.

>>Take Action: Urge Attorney General Holder to conduct a thorough investigation of the Bush torture program.

>>Learn more about the documents released on Monday.

Rendition Program to Continue Under Obama’s Watch

On Monday, the Obama administration made the disappointing announcement that it would continue the Bush administration practice rendition — the practice of kidnapping individuals suspected of terrorism and rendering them to other countries to be detained or interrogated — but that it will monitor all cases to ensure that suspects are not mistreated.

As a party to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the U.S. is under an absolute obligation not to commit torture or to facilitate its occurrence. By instituting a rendition program that relies on flimsy “diplomatic assurances,” the Obama administration is turning its back on U.S. obligations under the U.N. Convention.

The administration’s announcement forms part of the Justice Department’s new recommendations on the interrogation and transfer of individuals. The newly revamped rendition program would rely “on assurances from the receiving country” to prevent torture. These so-called “diplomatic assurances” — written guarantees from the receiving state that a person would not be subject to torture — are not a new concept. They were also employed by the Bush administration in the universally condemned “extraordinary rendition” program and proved singularly ineffective in preventing individuals from being tortured after transfer.

A rendition program with “diplomatic assurances” as its centerpiece will be ineffective at preventing torture. We urge the administration to uphold its absolute obligation to prevent torture. Any transfer it engages in must fully comply with domestic and international human rights law. Anything less will mark a return to the unlawful “extraordinary rendition” program.

>>Learn more about the ACLU’s work to end extraordinary rendition.

>>Learn more about the ACLU’s work to defend human rights.

ACLU Mourns Senator Edward Kennedy

The ACLU this week mourns the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a stalwart champion and defender of civil liberties with a record of public service marked by unending compassion and progress.

Sen. Kennedy often worked with the ACLU to defend the values and ideals inherent in the United States Constitution, fighting to ensure free speech, equality and justice for all people, particularly the disadvantaged. He consistently was the voice for the marginalized and fought in the Senate for those struggling to live free from discrimination throughout the country. Senator Kennedy’s leadership, courage, and compassion will echo throughout the halls of Congress for generations to come.

>> Learn more about Sen. Kennedy’s numerous legislative accomplishments.

Guantánamo Detainee Mohammed Jawad Returned Home To Afghanistan

ACLU client Mohammed Jawad was released from Guantánamo and returned to Afghanistan over the weekend, ending nearly seven years of illegal detention by the U.S. government.

In July, U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle granted Jawad’s habeas corpus petition and ordered the Justice Department to release him, finding there was no credible evidence to continue holding him. Judge Huvelle had previously issued a ruling throwing out Jawad’s supposed “confession” because it was the product of torture.

Two facts stood out with Jawad’s case. First, his age: he was a teenager, possibly as young as 12, when he was captured. And second, Jawad’s former lead military prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, left the military commission in September 2008 because he did not believe he could ethically proceed with the case given Jawad’s mistreatment and the lack of credible evidence against him.

“While Mr. Jawad’s release is a long-awaited victory for the rule of law, there are many other detainees who are still being held illegally,” said Jonathan Hafetz, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project and one of Jawad’s lawyers in his habeas corpus case. “We are hopeful that the government will act swiftly to close Guantánamo and handle all of the remaining detainees in a manner consistent with America’s Constitution and its values. Any detainee suspected of a crime must be charged and tried in the federal courts, which are fully capable of handling terrorism cases. After so many years, the government should have reliable, untainted evidence against any suspect it believes is guilty. If not, it has no justification to continue imprisoning him.”

>>Learn more about Jawad’s case.

Surrendering Your Fourth Amendment Rights at the Border

On Thursday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demanding records about the CBP’s policy of searching travelers’ laptops without suspicion of wrongdoing.

The lawsuit was filed to enforce a Freedom of Information Act request filed in June requesting the criteria used for selecting passengers for suspicionless searches, the number of people who have been subject to the searches, the number of devices and documents retained and the reasons for their retention.

In the policy, the CBP asserts the right to read the information on travelers’ laptops “absent individualized suspicion,” which means searching all files saved on laptops, including personal financial information, family photographs and lists of Web sites travelers have visited, without having any reason to believe a traveler has broken the law.

And after they’re done searching your laptop, they also reserve the right to search “documents, books, pamphlets and other printed material, as well as computers, disks, hard drives and other electronic or digital storage devices.”

This policy includes everyone crossing the border, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not.

Stay tuned for developments in this effort. In the meantime, if your laptop or electronic device has been searched at the border, let us know about it by emailing

Take Action: New boss same as the old boss when it comes to the "state secrets" excuse?

11 Feb

This week, ACLU lawyers encountered a recurring — and troubling — obstacle in our lawsuit seeking justice for torture victims caught up in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. But this time, the objections were not coming from the Bush administration.

To our surprise and disappointment, the new Justice Department urged a federal appeals court to dismiss our lawsuit charging a Boeing subsidiary with providing critical support for the CIA’s rendition program based on the same “state secrets” claim that the Bush administration had repeatedly invoked to avoid any judicial scrutiny of its actions. During the course of the argument, one judge asked twice if the change in administration had any bearing on the Justice Department’s position. The attorney for the government said that its position remained the same.

This isn’t the kind of change we need if we want an America we can be proud of again.

If the judges rule in the government’s favor, our clients — who were tortured as part of the government’s rendition program — will never get their day in court.

We’re still hoping the court will rule in our favor and allow our case to move forward. But, in the meantime, we must do everything we can to end the abuse of the “state secrets” doctrine both in the courts and on Capitol Hill.

Senators Kennedy, Leahy, Specter and Representative Nadler (as well as Rep. Petri from Wisconsin) introduced legislation in 2008 to narrow the scope of the state secrets privilege — and open the courthouse doors to people who have suffered real and legitimate harm by the government. Clearly, this legislation is needed now more than ever.

Send a message to these members of Congress to let them know you support the State Secrets Protection Act.

This crucial civil liberties bill recognizes the need to take precautions when it comes to national security. But, it also acknowledges that courts have been competently managing the balance between the security of classified information and the right to a fair trial in criminal cases for years. And, most important of all, it makes it much more difficult for the government to abuse the state secrets doctrine to escape accountability for illegal behavior.

We can’t allow any administration to invoke state secrets to hide a reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations.

Send a message to support the State Secrets Protection Act today.

Yesterday, the Obama administration had an opportunity to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition. But, instead, the Justice Department opted to stay the course.

Now, we must hope that the court will assert its independence, reject the government’s false claims of state secrets, and allow victims of torture and rendition their day in court.

Thanks for standing with us as we work to pursue justice on this critical civil liberties issue.

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director

P.S. The ACLU has been working on this case for years. To learn more about rendition and the people impacted, watch our short video.


12 Dec

The footage might be shaky, but the experience is equally raw. See ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero as he films himself in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Anthony was at Gitmo for the military commission hearings of five detainees charged with 9/11-related crimes. The video has footage of “Camp Justice,” the multi-million dollar tent city built to house military commission observers, and the local grocery store.

“Please note that by playing this clip You Tube will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube’s privacy statement on their website to learn more. To view the ACLU’s privacy statement, click here.”

The ACLU is representing some of the defendants as part of its John Adams Project. Anthony reflects on what he observed at the hearings, and talks about where the commissions are headed. Stay tuned for more updates from the front line.