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American Civil Liberties Union Continues to Challenge Patriot Act - 2004-08-18


The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging yet another provision of the U.S. Patriot Act. That's the measure that gives the federal government unprecedented access to personal information about private citizens, in its effort to fight the war on terrorism. The ACLU has been a vocal opponent of the Patriot Act since its passage in October of 2001. But this time, the challenge is personal.

The challenge could end up costing the ACLU $500,000 in donations from private citizens who happen to work for the government. The ACLU is one of about 2,000 charitable groups that receive funding from something called the Combined Federal Campaign. The CFC is a charity fund that's run by the U.S. government, but the money in the fund, some $237 million dollars isn't government money. It comes directly from federal employees, who've had the donations taken straight out of their paychecks and directed to charities they, themselves, have chosen. Under a provision in the Patriot Act, groups receiving CFC funding must agree not to "knowingly hire" anyone on the government's so-called "Terrorism Watch List." And according to Emily Whitfield, a spokesperson for the ACLU, that provision is unacceptable.

"It's a very vague and ambiguous agreement," said Ms. Whitfield. "I don't think anyone except [U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft knows exactly how we're supposed to enforce this or do this. But once we learned from the head of the Combined Federal Campaign that she expects us to actually go through pages and pages of names and match them up against our employees and ask our employees about their personal associational organizations and their personal beliefs, that was the end of it for us."

Rather than comply with this measure, the ACLU has removed its name from the list of charities receiving CFC funding. It's also working on a legal challenge to the Patriot Act, saying the provision about the CFC violates an individual employee's right of association. The group has been joined by at least fifteen other organizations that receive CFC funding, among them, Amnesty International, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the environmental group, the Sierra Club. Rick Cohen is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which worked in the 1980s to expand the list of charities receiving CFC funding. Mr. Cohen says many of these groups work with racial and ethnic minorities and have employees with names that are similar or in some cases exactly the same as individuals on the government's terrorism watch list.

"This list is a 143-page list of thousands, literally thousands of thousands of names, many of them names that are Arabic, Asian, transliterations of other languages. So there are many names that sound like other names, that are spelled like other names, that are hard to track and hard to verify," he said.

Rick Cohen says he worries some charity groups that can't afford to give up their CFC funding will simply refuse to hire anyone with a name that's similar to one found on a terrorism watch list. The vague and possibly inaccurate manner in which watch lists are compiled is another reason the ACLU plans to challenge the restrictions on CFC funding.

"What we found through our own litigation against one thing that's called a "No Fly List" is that these government watch lists are notoriously riddled with error," said Emily Whitfield of the ACLU. "Not only do they have all sorts of errors with the wrong names on them, there are false matches, but there's no recourse to allow someone to correct an error. So let's say there's a [group] out there that has agreed to check names against a watch list. Well, if someone by the name of Julio Ramirez, that's a name on the list, if someone by that name is on the list, but he's not able to prove that he's not the same Julio Ramirez that the government thinks is a terrorist, then he might not be able to get a job.

The Transportation Security Administration, which compiled the "No Fly" list Ms. Whitfield refers to, has stood by that list, even though at least seven innocent people have been prevented from boarding airplanes, because their names were mistakenly placed on the list. Meanwhile, the federal government's Office of Personnel Management, which administers the Combined Federal Campaign, is referring all questions about the Patriot Act to the U.S. Department of Justice. But the Department of Justice won't comment on the ACLU's complaint until an actual lawsuit has been filed.

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