Executive Director Anthony D. Romero's Remarks Regarding the ACLU's Priorities for the 110th Congress

January 9, 2007
Last November, America voters rejected political scare tactics, government power grabs and one-party rule. They chose civil liberties and sensible policies that keep America safe and free. More importantly, Americans across the nation exercised their democratic right to vote for true representation – and to prove that, as a judge said in a recent landmark ruling rebuking the Bush administration’s overreaching abuse of power - there are no hereditary kings wielding unlimited power in our United States.

Today we’re on Capitol Hill to ensure that the 110th Congress accepts its responsibility to check the executive branch and demand real answers from an arrogant and unresponsive administration.

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Rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution - diminished under the previous Congress - must be revived and protected. Senator Harry Reid stated in his letter to Senate Democrats last week, “Our founding fathers foretold of the dangers of stifled dissent, and we must now heed their advice.” I couldn’t agree more. The rights and freedoms of the American people should always come first – especially when we question authority.

Caroline and I made a list of New Year’s resolutions for Congress  … Amend the Military Commissions Act and restore habeas corpus, stop warrantless NSA wiretapping, protect our privacy, end torture and abuse, and stop the president from hiding behind false claims of state secrecy.

Just one year after the New York Times broke the NSA surveillance scandal, we learned through The Daily News that President Bush had quietly issued a signing statement on December 20, 2006 that allows him to add opening our mail to the growing list of privacy invasions. This truly is a war on America, not on terror. 

But we did receive a few gifts from Congress and the courts since civil liberties came under attack following 9/11.  The Supreme Court’s rejection of the military commissions system for Guantanamo detainees in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Congress’ Patriot Act filibuster, another court’s rejection of national security letters, the ongoing disclosures on spying and torture via our FOIA demands, the McCain Amendment on torture, and the scrapping of over-the-top spying programs like CAPPS II, Total Information Awareness and Operations TIPS – to name just a few.

They don’t, however, mitigate the president’s systematic abuse of power.

Whatever inherent powers the president might have under Article II of the Constitution, they do not include the power to conduct a warrantless, indefinite and unlimited domestic surveillance campaign that is expressly prohibited by law. America must learn the scope of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program - who has been spied on - what has been done with the information - and who authorized it. In August 2006, federal judge Anna Diggs Taylor found the NSA program both unconstitutional and illegal as a result of an ACLU lawsuit. We’ll be returning to court later this month to defend that landmark ruling before a federal appeals court.  The Constitution says illegal wiretapping is wrong - a federal judge reminded the president that it’s wrong - and now it’s time for Congress to do its part and ensure the chief executive enforces the law. Not break it. Congress should hold hearings as soon as possible to get the answers and demand accountability.

But the Bush administration avoids any accountability for its illegal behavior by hiding behind a cloak of secrecy. His administration has used a variety of tactics to deny court review of key facts that could reveal unconstitutional and illegal actions by federal officials. 

In December of last year we saw yet again that over-classification of documents is really a strong-arm tactic aimed at silencing the critics of authoritarian rule. After the ACLU fought back, the government backed down from its attempt to force us to hand over “any and all copies” of a previously “secret” memo detailing DoD policy for photographing detainees. It should have never been classified secret. Congress should see this as proof that investigating over-classification and executive privilege should be a priority – who knows how many more times Bush has illegally covered his tracks and for what reasons.

The main reason America knows anything about these or any other abuses is by reading it in the papers or seeing it on TV. So to thwart the media’s role in exposing questionable and illegal conduct, the administration wants to prosecute journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917.

There has never been a better time to fight for our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. There has never been a more urgent need to preserve fundamental privacy protections and our system of checks and balances. Illegal government spying, abuse of executive privilege, provisions of the Patriot Act and government-sponsored torture programs transcend the bounds of law and our most treasured American values in the name of national security.

One-party rule proved that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Senator Reid concluded his letter to Senate Democrats by saying, “ … the American people were telling us last November that results are more important than party, and progress for the nation must come before our own political priorities.”

It is time for both parties in Congress to stand together for civil liberties. The ACLU is ready to stand with them.
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