By far the most sustained period of ACLU action during national crises came in response to the assault on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft pledged that they would not erode civil liberties in response to the attacks. Unfortunately, the Administration's actions signally failed to live up to that promise.
President Bush moved quickly to establish military tribunals, using an executive order to get around any need for Congressional approval (a strategy he no doubt learned from his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, who used executive orders frequently to thwart the will of Congress). The Justice Department expanded its wiretapping authority and limited judicial oversight of these activities, a tactic that did not come to light until The New York Times revealed the practice in December 2005. The Justice Department also seized the right to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations. And immigration authorities began to hold deportation hearings in a shroud of secrecy.
A 'War' Without End?
In testimony before Congress shortly after the attacks, Attorney General Ashcroft equated legitimate political dissent with actions unpatriotic and un-American, warning that criticism of the government would 'give pause to our allies...ammunition to our enemies...and diminish our national resolve.' It was certainly no accident that a massive law passed in response to 9/11, full of unconstitutional provisions, was dubbed the USA Patriot Act.
In arguing for new and unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties and rollbacks of long-held rights, the Bush Administration and its supporters claimed that limitations imposed on civil liberties during wartime were almost always temporary. But the war against terrorism, unlike conventional wars such as the two World Wars, may never come to a public, decisive end, and thus, the loss of rights becomes permanent and irrevocable.
Following are highlights from the ACLU's ongoing national security docket of more than 50 cases in which the ACLU has challenged unlawful government policies and practices, defended the rights of detainees, battled new surveillance initiatives, protected the right to dissent, and mobilized the public to stand up for their civil liberties.