11 September 2001>News Stories>A Frustrated A.C.L.U. Tries to Guide Consulates Through a Thicket

A Frustrated A.C.L.U. Tries to Guide Consulates Through a Thicket

William Glaberson . NYTimes . 02 January 2002

Anthony D. Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, has offered to help immigrants in the terrorism crackdown.

When it arrived at Pakistan's consulate in New York recently, the letter offered welcome help to officials worn out by desperate calls from Pakistanis in detention. It said it was "to offer our assistance" to people who have been held by the American government since Sept. 11.

"We are particularly interested," the letter continued, "in highlighting instances of abuse by our government and in developing systematic litigation to challenge its unconstitutional practices."

It was from the American Civil Liberties Union, a group so reviled and revered that even the mention of its name could create a furor, which in a way helped smooth the reception at the consulate.

"I had heard of this civil liberties group in many TV shows and talk shows," said Mohammad Hafeez, the consul general. "But they become more relevant when you confront the situation when your nationals are under detention."

The letter was sent in December by the civil liberties union to the consulates of the 10 countries with the most citizens among those detained, including Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Yemen.

The story of the letter — and the responses to it — shows the frustrations of civil liberties advocates in trying to challenge the government's terrorism crackdown when even the names of many people in detention are still secret.

It also shows how ill-equipped many of the consular officials are at maneuvering in the American legal system. Officials of several consulates said they were still unsure how many of their citizens were in detention or what they could do for those who were. The government has detained these people for various reasons during the terror investigation and is holding them on immigration charges.

The consulates seemed confused by the letter from an American organization offering to challenge its own government in court and were uncertain whether that was permissible in this country. Mahmoud Allam, the consul general of Egypt, said he did not know of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Is it banned here?" he asked.

The A.C.L.U. has championed the causes of immigrants since its founding 81 years ago during the Palmer Raids, an earlier reaction to terrorism that officials said was tied to immigrants. But people at the organization said they could recall no similar systematic effort to mount a legal challenge against the American government through contacts with foreign diplomats.

Several people at the group said the decision to write the letters was not controversial internally.

The civil liberties union, like many other organizations that have been critical of the government since Sept. 11, has been busy for months. Its lobbyists and lawyers have been critiquing the government's antiterrorism measures. Its Washington office has answered more than 4,000 calls from reporters.

But Anthony D. Romero, the organization's executive director, said critics might lose their momentum with the public because of government secrecy.

"What's important right now is to paint a human face," Mr. Romero said. "If we keep it in abstractions — `checks and balances,' `due process' — it will not bring it home to the ordinary American."

One way to do that, he said, is to find the innocent people and bring their stories to the attention of the courts and the public.

Which explains something of how his letter-writing campaign began. For Mr. Romero, 36, the stakes are particularly high. On Sept. 4, a week before the terror attacks, he became executive director of the civil liberties union after the 23-year reign of Ira Glasser, whose name became synonymous with the organization.

It is an important job not only because of the high-profile but also because the group has become a large institution that raises about $50 million a year nationally.

Expectations were high for Mr. Romero, a former Ford Foundation executive who is the child of Puerto Rican immigrants and a graduate of Princeton University and Stanford Law School. He has been trying to make his mark quickly.

In October, as anger about the detentions grew among critics, Mr. Romero asked for a meeting with Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On Oct. 26, Mr. Romero and members of his staff peppered Mr. Mueller with questions about who was being detained, why, and what legal right the government had to keep their names secret.

They did not get far.

"We came away from that meeting totally frustrated," said Laura W. Murphy, the director of the group's Washington office.

The meeting, Mr. Romero said, convinced him that the group needed to adopt a more aggressive strategy.

"If the government is not going to provide us with the names of the people who are being detained," he said, "we had to do it on our own."

The group began collecting what was publicly known about the detainees and increased contacts with Arab, Muslim and Sikh groups and lawyers. It published a brochure telling immigrants about their rights, in English, Spanish and Arabic. A version in Punjabi is in preparation.

In early December, the A.C.L.U. joined with other groups in a suit against the government seeking information about the detainees under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Romero said his letters were an important part of the strategy. In the letter, he emphasized his group's view that American rights extend to all people in this country, including immigrants.

"We are quite concerned," he wrote, "that current efforts to combat terrorism may undermine the basic freedoms and liberties that are the foundation of our democracy."

Responses are just beginning to come in. The Indian Consulate wrote a warm reply promising a follow-up.

Pakistan's vice consul, Irfan Ahmed, supplied the names of about a dozen Pakistanis who, he said, had been approved for voluntary departure by American immigration officials but were still being held.

The agreement to voluntary departure, Mr. Ahmed said, shows that the officials have concluded that those people are not terrorists.

Civil liberties union lawyers say they are analyzing the legal strategies to use for the cases.

Mr. Ahmed said he was delighted by the offer of help from the civil liberties union because the consulate received at least 10 telephone calls a day from detained people or their relatives.

"We are baffled at where to begin," he said.

The civil liberties group, he said, "might be able to make it very clear to the courts that these people are not being treated according to American law."

But some consular officials were cautious. Mohamed Karmoune, the deputy consul for Morocco in New York, said he was not sure what the civil liberties group could do because the consulate did not know how many Moroccans were in custody or who most of them were.

The Turkish consul, Sedat Onal, seemed confused about what the civil liberties union was.

"I am not sure about their intention," Mr. Onal said, "or their position in the United States."

He said he was considering how to respond to the group's offer of help.