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Freedom to Backstab

Meanwhile, more baffling stories from inside the ACLU have appeared in the papers: a scandal involving shredding internal documents, a proposal to destroy recordings of ACLU meetings (shelved for the time being), a new oath for employees who broke whistle-blowing standards (withdrawn after protests), and a gag order for board members that even the attorney general said undermined their rights and responsibilities (withdrawn after news accounts). Perhaps most troubling was a board meeting in which Romero angrily denounced Kaminer, who in typical fashion was attacking a bill before Congress that the ACLU said it backed. Romero, who believed she was attacking his staff, rejected her argument as “bullshit” and declared he was “fed up with being disrespected” by her. In a remarkable display of disharmony, his board supporters erupted in applause, as a tape recording of the event attests. “It was a Captain Queeg moment as far as I was concerned,” Kaminer says.

But Romero wasn’t finished. He then turned his ire toward another board member, Alison Steiner, a quiet First Amendment lawyer, who had reportedly grimaced during Romero’s outburst. He asked her to step into the hallway. In an e-mail she wrote to fellow board members, she said he gave her a “drubbing” because of her obvious discomfort in the meeting. “Anthony went on to say that because I was Wendy’s ‘friend’ and did not appear ready to join him in ‘getting rid of her’ (by, among other things, lobbying her affiliate to remove her as its representative), I was no better than she was, and then stormed off angrily.” Witnesses said the exchange left Steiner in tears.

Later in the same meeting, a board member from South Carolina, David Kennison, rose to bemoan the ugly depths to which board decorum had sunk. He requested an apology from Romero. Instead, Romero walked him out of the meeting hall as well. In an e-mail he circulated a few days later, corroborated by eyewitnesses, Kennison said Romero angrily warned that he had “actually ‘kept a file’ ” on Kaminer. “When I inquired as to whether that anger was an indication that he was going to start keeping a file on me,” Kennison wrote, “he asked me what made me think that he didn’t already.”

Romero later issued a formal apology (excluding Kaminer) and denied keeping dossiers on his enemies. But he remains less than contrite. “Have you never lost your temper?” he asks me. “Can some people really push you? Purposefully provoke you?”

Nevertheless, a number of board members tell me they have been intimidated into silence. “We’ve behaved like a supine Congress under Bush,” says one board member. Others report they have come under direct attack by Romero or his supporters. Kaminer forwarded me a group e-mail in which Joe Sweat, a director from Tennessee who was recently elevated to the executive committee, called her a “fucked-out boozy bitch.”

And as I was finishing this story, Arnie Miller called to amplify his previous remarks, in which he had called Ira Glasser a King Lear raging against his irrelevance and alleged that the dissidents are asking major donors to close their checkbooks. Now he said he had heard that one of the dissidents was a sexual harasser—an allegation completely unrelated to the current conflict. He admitted he was slinging mud but added, “If there’s something I can do to cut [Glasser] off and discredit him, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Responding for the dissidents, Glasser calls this last swipe “the worst kind of McCarthyist crap possible. It’s a complete descent to ad hominem attack.”

Some of the ACLU’s longest-serving directors—including Kaminer and Morisey—have resigned in disgust, and others have been voted out. Meyers, who joined the board in 1981 and served as the corporation’s vice-president, lost his reelection bid as a write-in candidate in 2005 after taking his beef to Bill O’Reilly’s show. In the fall, after two decades, Ferguson walked away from the ACLU. “The national lay leadership has abdicated its responsibility for oversight of the executive director,” he wrote in a resignation letter. “The ACLU to which I remain deeply committed has lost its way.”

With diminished traction on the national board, the dissidents have opened a new front. Ira Glasser is personally contacting the local affiliates and proposing a formal debate there, with representatives of both sides.

The fire, it seems, refuses to go out.

This makes Anthony Romero furious. “I’m willing to stack it up: what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, how I’ve conducted myself, what I’ve done right, what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve learned from it, what I’ve done to remedy it. I say, ‘Open the kimono!’ But we’ve hashed these issues out ad nauseam.”