Freedom to Backstab

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

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.”

From top, Save the ACLU's online petition; voices for the ACLU's Website.

Reviving the grand rhetoric that made him famous, Glasser likens Romero to McCarthy, Nixon, and Rumsfeld, and aligns himself and his fellow dissidents in the pantheon of heroes: Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and the “people who did what they did on Christopher Street in 1969.

“I don’t mean to wrap ourselves in the mantle in those great movements,” he says. “These issues are not that important. But they’re not unimportant, because the ACLU has become the most critical institution in the country for protecting the infrastructure for our system of liberty. If people stop paying attention to us because they think we’re hypocrites, five years from now the organization—I don’t care if it’s five times as big—won’t be as effective as if it was half as big.”

Romero, while admitting to some mistakes early in his tenure, is defiant. “Their remedy is to fire me,” he tells me. “You can pick the very worst days of my life, of which there have been a couple, and you can depict it in a way where you don’t get a sense of what we’ve accomplished and [my] temperament and approach and character.”

The irony is that Ira Glasser created Anthony Romero. After heading the ACLU for 23 years, during which time he earned respect for a firm presence at the rudder and an almost bloodthirsty acumen on television debate programs, Glasser decided to step away in 2000. At the time, Romero was a young executive at the Ford Foundation who oversaw human-rights grants to the ACLU and others totaling $90 million a year. Though Romero had none of Glasser’s telegenic appeal, he is a lawyer by training—Glasser is a mathematician—and had something else going for him: a compelling personal narrative. Being Latino and gay made him a double minority and a trophy in the eyes of a place where diversity is a crucial value.

Glasser personally persuaded Romero to throw in his hat for the job. “I was probably as close to him as I had ever been to anybody in the funding world,” Glasser tells me. “We worked very closely as colleagues in the grantee-grantor sort of co-conspiratorial relationship. And he was always terrific for us. I always had a sense that he was very competent, that he was a good manager, that he understood money, that he managed a big budget, and, above all, that he seemed totally committed on a wide range of issues that were core issues for the ACLU.”

According to Arnie Miller, whose Boston-based search firm Isaacson, Miller headed the recruitment effort, Glasser championed his candidate throughout the selection process, then gave the speech to the selection committee that pushed Romero over the finish line with unanimous support.

“We were so impressed with the ideas that he had for bringing the ACLU to the next level,” says board president Nadine Strossen, an NYU law professor who chaired the screening committee.

Romero’s first day on the job was September 4, 2001, just a week before the events that would change the course of history. Concerned that the Bush administration has been using terror threats to justify a broad assault on freedoms after 9/11, Americans have turned to the ACLU in record numbers. Membership, which had hovered at about 300,000 for decades, has gone up to 573,000 since 9/11. Total donations have exploded to $28 million a year, more than twice the 2001 budget. “This is forehead-slapping sums of money,” one board member tells me. “We got money to burn now.”

Romero has earmarked much of it for growing staff—to 379 from 186 in 2001—and he increased their salaries to industry standards, in some cases doling out 86 percent raises. He built a new Human Rights Program, with four attorneys who have brought some of the agency’s most significant litigation, and another division on high-tech surveillance, with experts in Washington parrying the White House’s every thrust into data-mining and next-generation spying, including in fields like genetics.

But, more fundamental, Romero was determined to place at least one staff attorney in nearly every one of the ACLU’s 53 affiliate offices. When Glasser took over, many offices didn’t even have someone answering the phone. The investments have paid off enormously. Today, the ACLU is by far the world’s largest public-interest law firm. Romero’s teams have fought back against the Patriot Act, litigated the National Security Agency’s domestic-spying program, and brought cases against the torturing, kidnapping, and arbitrary detentions that have been the unfortunate legacy of Washington’s “war on terror.” In addition, ACLU lawyers filed a class-action suit to correct the wildly inaccurate “no-fly” lists of possible terrorists compiled for airlines, and won cases compelling the FBI to make public their files on pacifist groups like United for Peace and Justice and even the ACLU itself. “You can’t underestimate the extraordinary work the ACLU has done over the last five years,” says Leonard Rubenstein, who heads Physicians for Human Rights.

Nobody disputes these successes, and many civil-liberties experts I talked to said Romero’s record in this regard makes his critics seem, as constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams says, “overwrought and misguided.” But the first in a string of minor-sounding scandals arrived a few months into his tenure, in the guise of an embarrassing but unavoidable gaffe, only to grow over the ensuing years into a much-dissected cancer on Romero’s leadership.

Early in 2002, at a time when Romero was still enjoying a honeymoon with his board of directors, a reporter for a small legal periodical noticed a technical glitch in the ACLU’s Website that, for a time, published the names and e-mail addresses of people who had placed orders for ACLU tote bags and the like on a page accessible to the public. It was a potentially embarrassing episode—coincidentally, a few months earlier, the ACLU had sought stiff penalties against Eli Lilly for inadvertently posting the e-mail addresses of Prozac users. But the ACLU’s error belonged to an outside firm that hosts the group’s online presence.

Once informed of the breach, the contractor corrected it immediately, and the ACLU contacted each of the 91 customers whose information was disclosed, apologized, and offered them free merchandise (courtesy of the hosting firm). But a month or more later, lawyers at the Internet Bureau of the New York attorney general’s office began a formal probe of the episode and sought a sizable fine from the ACLU. What goes around went around.

“Let’s say he lied to shield his mother from the pain of seeing him publicly embarrassed. We would still be obliged to acknowledge his misconduct and hold him accountable for it, in order to protect the ACLU.”
—Wendy Kaminer, former ACLU board member

“I give them a lot of credit,” says Barry Steinhardt, the ACLU’s program director for technology issues, who worked with then–Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s lawyers. “We believed they were doing the right thing, and they didn’t pull any punches.” Romero bargained the fine down from $100,000 to $10,000, which the hosting firm agreed to pay. The mini-crisis seemed to be averted.

But Romero kept his board—a notoriously nettlesome group of 83—largely in the dark, nor did he hire outside legal help. Given the seriousness of an investigation of this sort, this seems like a curious course of action.

The problem was that the agreement the ACLU signed with the attorney general’s office includes a standard requirement to deliver copies of the agreement to all board members within 30 days. Steinhardt (who is a nonpracticing lawyer) says the pattern of commas in that clause wrongly convinced him they were obliged to alert only individuals with direct Website oversight, not all board members. That’s what he conveyed to Romero.

This might have ended as a story about punctuation but for what happened next. According to a memo Romero wrote, a staff member in the ACLU’s archives department flagged that sentence months later. She alerted a top administrator, another nonpracticing lawyer named Karen Delince, who advised Romero of his need to inform his board.

In a circumspect interview arranged through Romero, Delince tells me that Romero disagreed. “It was astounding to me that there could be a dispute about what the language said or meant, but apparently there was,” she says. “I wrote him a memo hoping that once he saw the actual language right in front of him, it would become clearer to him,” she says, and told him that, if he was unsure, he should seek outside counsel.

Romero explained to me that he was reluctant to tell his board simply because wanted to spare them unnecessary paperwork. “There are lots of documents I sign that I don’t necessarily give my board copies of unless I have to,” he says.

When the outside counsel’s report came in, it backed Delince. “Sure enough,” Romero tells me with a shrug, “Barry read it wrong.”

Romero finally disclosed the matter during the June 2003 meeting of the board, five months late. He apologized for not keeping channels with the board open, those present say, but he did not volunteer that the deadline for telling them had passed. In fact, the agreement copy he gave them had no date on it at all, which could have led to the conclusion that the deal had just been struck and the board was being informed in a timely fashion.

Almost everyone was satisfied that lessons had been learned. But not Michael Meyers. For two decades, Meyers has been a cantankerous board member who was elected by his peers to the board’s eleven-member executive committee. A lawyer by training, he is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, a nominal group he founded, and a sometime columnist for the New York Post. His warning bells went off. “What sort of nonsense is that?” he says. “Why would you hire a law firm to tell you whether or not you should tell the board what you’re doing?”

The tenacious Meyers is not the sort of man you would want doubting you. Even allies think “there’s something wrong with Michael,” as one puts it. “Yeah, I’m adamant—some say shrill,” he admits with a Foghorn Leghorn laugh. “Well, my voice was heard!”

He noticed that the copies were undated. He demanded an executed instrument, which was made available to him a few weeks later. That’s when the default became apparent. “He forces you into playing twenty questions,” Meyers tells me. “It was not the ACLU that anybody was accustomed to. That’s the shocker of all of this. Where’s the disclosure, the transparency, the forthrightness?”

Most directors took these developments as insignificant oversights, but a small number shared Meyers’s alarm. “If he had come to us and said, ‘I should have told you about this five months ago and didn’t,’ I would have thought, That’s not great, but he’s admitting it now. It’s not that big a deal,” says Wendy Kaminer, a Boston lawyer and writer who was on the board at the time. She and Meyers pushed for further clarification with the aggression of prosecutors.

Romero didn’t mention the scandal to Glasser until August. To prepare for his next round of grilling by the board, he took the train to Glasser’s summer home in Connecticut. Glasser says they strolled the beach at sunset as Romero laid out the narrative of events. Glasser had heard some of it already. Delince, after sending her memo, called him to ask if she had any obligation to tell board members herself, and he told her no. But one part of Romero’s chronology diverged from the history as Glasser understood it. He told Glasser that Delince wrote her memo because he asked her to.

“This is a tiny number of incidents that are raised over and over and over again. Even assuming, completely for the sake of argument, that every allegation made by this group is true, I would say, So what!”
—Nadine Strossen, ACLU board president

“I remember stepping on a clump of sand, trying not to stumble in astonishment, because I realized in that moment that he’s lying to me,” says Glasser, gripping a hand to his chest, Redd Foxx style. “He lied when it wasn’t even necessary. He lied the way you breathe, which is to say, unconsciously, and without being aware of it. I just remember being shocked. Here was my guy!”

He later added, “It was a shocking, pivotal point in my view of him. But if that had been the last thing he did, I would have brushed it off as something he was embarrassed about. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I began to see that incident on the beach as a characterological pattern and not an aberration.”

Soon, another scandal of sorts arrived, from even further afield. A May 2004 article in The Wall Street Journal reported on a protest by nine elite universities against the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, which had inserted vague anti-terrorism language in grant contracts. To accept the funds, read the Ford contract, a recipient must abstain from anything that might be construed as promoting “violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any state,” measures the universities considered overbroad and potentially censorious. Defending Ford in the article was an ACLU spokesperson who said that free-speech rights weren’t at risk because Ford was a private foundation and not a government office. The ACLU had accepted $136,000 from Ford under these conditions. “When I read that, I was appalled,” Kaminer remembers. “Of course there are free-speech issues—this specifically says what you can’t advocate.”

Kaminer circulated the article to the board and spearheaded a typically strident conversation about principles. She and others thought the ACLU should be protesting Ford, not defending it, while Romero and his board president argued that Ford funding was essential for the ACLU’s operation, this restriction notwithstanding.

There were two interesting things Romero did not reveal before the Ford situation was made public. One is that he had accepted a much more restrictive clause in another grant contract, with the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a United Way–type fund for civil servants, which, according to the language of the contract, appeared to require the ACLU to check all employees against a government blacklist of possible terrorists. The other is that Romero was the one who, in his capacity as the nation’s top rights defender, had advised Ford to “parrot” federal law, which in this case meant the Patriot Act. “This is like the pope coming out in favor of abortion rights,” Kaminer quipped at the time.

Romero mentioned those facts only after lengthy cross-examinations in board meetings. “It’s always the same pattern,” says a board veteran who asked not to be named. “Somehow he slips and says something, and somebody pounces on it, usually Michael, and then he’s forced to reveal it.” A growing number of directors were losing all confidence in his leadership, but most rallied to his defense—galvanized in part by a shared distaste for the strident, bullying rhetoric of Kaminer and Meyers. “Their criticism was personal, relentless, and grossly excessive,” says Robert Remar, an Atlanta attorney who is one of Romero’s strongest defenders on the board. “I think it was a mistake to sign that grant. But I wouldn’t say one mistake in the history of an organization is fatal.”

At the July 9, 2004, board meeting, Romero offered a curious defense for his actions. It would be wrong to actually rely on government blacklists, he conceded then, but the CFC grant language barred the organization only from “knowingly” employing anybody on the lists. A few weeks later, he told the New York Times he had printed out the blacklists, but “I’ve never consulted them.” He said this interpretation, which ACLU president Nadine Strossen called “clever,” was deemed reasonable on “advice of counsel.”

To hard-core civil-liberties types, though, his remarks appeared to involve an ethical shortcut in order to get his hands on the money, some $500,000, from the CFC. “I think some people don’t have a civil-liberties gut or sensitivity,” says Muriel Morisey. “I don’t think Anthony’s civil-liberties bells go off the way they should.”

On July 30, one day before the New York Times was to publish a piece about the contretemps, Romero revealed that he’d fudged the date of the “advice of counsel”—in fact, he’d gotten the legal opinion six months after he’d made the decision. And the outside lawyer’s opinion didn’t endorse his policy. Though the lawyer said ignoring the list was an “alternative reasonable interpretation,” he also called it imprudent, arguing that by doing so, the ACLU and its staff might be found to have shown a “reckless disregard of the truth” and risked sustainable convictions for “knowingly making a false statement to the United States.”

At that point, Glasser blew a cork—and let Romero know it. To this day, he can’t understand why the board didn’t take action. “If Kenneth Lay had done something like that, he would have been out on his ass in five minutes! He breaches a principle, he lies about an interpretation, he says he reached this interpretation—which is on its face absurd—on the advice of counsel, but he doesn’t receive the advice of counsel until six months after he did it,” Glasser bellows, “and the advice of counsel says the opposite of what he says it said!”

In a bitter e-mail exchange that July and August, Romero told Glasser he was “pissed off” by his rebuke and wanted to “clear the air” between them. “I have always greatly admired you—and have regarded you as a surrogate father figure. I guess that’s why it hurts so much,” he wrote.

“My interest is not ‘clearing the air’; I don’t think there is much need for that, really,” Glasser wrote. “None of this is personal … Colleagues ought to be able to express and discuss such disagreements on the merits, vigorously but without rancor.”

He added, “I also think you have injured the ACLU, not only by your initial error of judgment, but also by your defense of it. That you have managed to find support for this error of judgment among some key staff and … board members only compounds the injury, in my view. I think the ACLU will be a long time getting over this.”

But Nadine Strossen, the board president, still thinks he was right to accept the grant. Forfeiting the money, she said, “wouldn’t be accomplishing anything at all. It would be the worst of both worlds if we’re giving up money we could get without compromising our principles, and we’re not advancing our cause.”

A few weeks after the dissidents launched their Website, called, a group of Romero’s supporters responded with, strongly expressing support for Romero and Strossen. Prominent signers included Arnie Miller, the headhunter; Norman Dorsen, who was president before Strossen; and Aryeh Neier, the executive director before Glasser. “Of course, there have been mistakes,” Dorsen admits, “but it’s a matter of judgment and proportion, really. The question is, what is the remedy? Termination? In the larger scheme of his performance of the ACLU, do the mistakes rise to this level? Most people don’t think so.”

In fact, more than 50 luminaries in the world of personal freedoms have rallied behind the current leadership, including the NAACP’s Julian Bond, now’s Kim Gandy, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, Feminist Majority’s Eleanor Smeal, and Faye Wattleton of the Center for Advancement of Women. Kate Kendell, who runs the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says she signed up partly because of a fear that homophobia might be behind the caviling. “I don’t want to engage in gay-baiting, but I would be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind.” That suggestion is echoed by Arnie Miller, who supposes that Glasser is jealous of Romero’s successes. “It’s a highly competitive, sometimes unrelenting—it’s close to vicious—all-consuming personality he has,” Miller says. “There have been changes. That was difficult for Ira to accept.”

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.”

Strossen agrees. “This is a tiny number of incidents that are raised over and over and over again,” she says. “Even assuming, completely for the sake of argument, that every allegation made by this group is true, I would say, ‘So what!’ ”

The central question is this: Is Romero’s admittedly troubled track record evidence of mistakes or misconduct? As one board member says, “It’s a Rashomon moment, because people looking at the same things are clearly seeing things differently.” Romero’s opponents are convinced he has intentionally undermined the board, though they are not sure to what end. Glasser thinks something in Romero’s character compels him to mislead, while Kaminer says it could be something more simple. “Let’s say he lied to shield his mother from the pain of seeing him publicly embarrassed,” she says. “We would still be obliged to acknowledge his misconduct and hold him accountable for it, in order to protect the ACLU.”

A harder thing for them to explain is why a majority of Romero’s directors are squarely behind him. Rick Johnson, a board member of the Florida affiliate, calls it the curse of Midas: Romero has flooded so much money into the ACLU system that committed civil libertarians are loath to sideline him for any reason. “What I’m troubled by is, if you take any cluster of people, no matter how fine their character may start out to be, and you give them something close to unlimited money, unlimited power, secrecy, the ability to take that money and use it to perpetuate themselves in power, the ability to silence critics, to keep documents secret or shred those documents, the ability to erase tapes so your version of history cannot be challenged, and if you mix that with an attitude that is vindictive and maybe a little paranoid, what you’ve got is a potential train wreck,” he says.

It is interesting watching Romero as I repeat this litany of negative remarks to him. His eyes darken, but for the most part he declines to reply for the record. Instead, he says he struggles to keep marching forward. “Yeah, the swords can make you ache,” he says. “But I think about the picadors, the first ones who come out in a bullfight. The key is not to kill the bull but to make the bull a little bit more energetic. A little bit more ready for the big bullfight. That’s what they mostly feel like.”

Freedom to Backstab