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Freedom to Backstab

Anthony Romero, head of the ACLU, America’s most important free-speech organization, has been accused of lying, among other transgressions—by his own mentor. Who said liberties had to be civil?

Ira Glasser (right), the ACLU's former director, is trying to depose his successor and protégé, Anthony Romero.  

Anthony Romero is weary of scrutiny. In dozens of lawsuits, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union inveighs against the Bush administration for peering into Americans’ letters, e-mails, and phone calls without court orders. Last month, he denounced the Pentagon for monitoring 186 antiwar protests and keeping files on pacifist groups, from Veterans for Peace to the Catholic Worker Movement. If Romero has learned one thing after five years at the ACLU’s helm, it is the cleansing power of shining a light into an institution’s darkest corners.

The 9/11 Effect
Anthony Romero took over a week after 9/11. The ACLU has burgeoned since then.  

But when the light shines on him, that’s a different story. Though he doesn’t like to talk about it, he has come under intense fire from within his own organization. A number of very aggressive ACLU board members and other rights experts have pursued him with the kind of fervor usually reserved for the likes of Richard Nixon. The litany of their complaints is staggering. They charge him with unacceptable philosophical inconsistencies (Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says Romero largely avoids Fox News, a peculiar stance for the head of a free-speech group), workplace policies unbecoming of a civil-liberties organization (staffers describe a “repressive, communist-like atmosphere” at headquarters, where discontent is “heavy, palpable, and widespread”), rank intimidation of dissidents (Romero is said to shake and scream), and dereliction of principle. Taken together, they seem to describe an agency adrift, or else hijacked by an impostor, someone not committed to its core principles.

So after some hesitation, Romero, 41, invited me to his home to talk about his life and defend his work. “I’m a very private person,” he says by way of greeting me at the elevator, which opens onto his living room. “You’re the first reporter that’s ever been inside.”

The apartment, a large loft in the flower district, does seem to reveal something about its occupant. It is spare and modern, with a humble past as a spice warehouse. Romero, who likes designer clothes and drives a Mini Cooper convertible, began life in the projects in the Bronx, the oldest child of uneducated Puerto Rican immigrants. He designed the renovation himself, creating a showcase for his discoveries at Cassina sample sales and Kenyan or Indian craft markets. He owns the place with his partner of ten years, whom he asks me not to name.

Though he is openly gay, his boyfriend is not. He’s a black, Cuban-born Freudian psychiatrist eleven years Romero’s senior. “He wants his patients to not know anything at all about his life,” Romero says. “His life shouldn’t distract them in any way.”

He says that the pair differ politically as well—Romero casts himself as a libertarian who usually votes Democratic and puts his boyfriend on the opposite end of the spectrum. And they aren’t registered as domestic partners, nor do they plan to marry, he says. This strikes me as unusual, given the resources the ACLU devotes to same-sex marriage.

“Why not?” I ask.

He fixes a brittle look on his face. “I’m not interested in the concept of marriage,” he says, before changing the subject to work, a subject he relishes only slightly more.

The ACLU’s troubles spilled into the public square last fall, when Romero’s critics launched a protest Website aimed at “saving” the group from the threat they say Romero poses. Some of the country’s best-known civil libertarians joined the opposition, including Siegel, the writer Nat Hentoff, and David Goldberger, who served as chief counsel in the ACLU’s most famous case, defending a neo-Nazi group’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois.

“Something dreadfully amiss is going on at the ACLU,” says Muriel Morisey, a law professor at Temple who served on the board until 2004 and is one of ten current or former board members who oppose Romero. “I’m thinking, We’re in looking-glass territory. That’s just so wrong it’s mind-boggling.”

The most surprising name belongs to Ira Glasser, a star of the civil-liberties movement and Romero’s predecessor. Glasser personally plucked Romero from near-obscurity to be his heir apparent. Now he is leading the charge against him.

“He’s totally ill-suited for this job,” Glasser tells me over a shrimp salad at the Empire Diner one chilly afternoon. Glasser ticks off a dozen instances in which he believes Romero was negligent, dishonest to the point of pathology, or bullying of his colleagues. “He lies, and he covers up for his lies,” he says. “Anybody who tries to call him on this, he threatens and attacks personally. He’s got some of his own board members scared of retaliation against them or their local affiliates. And the rest of the board is suffering from some sort of willful blindness.”