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The ACLU is out of line

THE AMERICAN Civil Liberties Union has long trumpeted itself as the protector of America's freedoms. But in a bizarre tactical decision, it has decided to abdicate that self-appointed role in exchange for membership in the shrill chorus of Bush administration opponents. The decision to file suit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in connection with the alleged abuse of foreign detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan places the ACLU outside of its stated mission. It also places the group firmly in opposition to an organization -- the US military -- that is actually working for what the ACLU purports to be about -- the protection of American freedoms.

On its website, the ACLU says its ''job" is to ''defend the rights of every man, woman and child in this country" and ''defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States" (emphasis added). Yet, none of the eight plaintiffs for whom the ACLU is providing pro bono representation is either an American citizen or a legal (or illegal) resident of this country. The plaintiffs are all citizens of either Iraq or Afghanistan who were captured by US military forces during the wars being fought in those two countries. How then does this lawsuit advance the cause of American civil liberties?

The ACLU press release touting this ''landmark" action does not provide an answer to that question. Instead, the release suggests that the group wants to reestablish itself as the American Public Relations Union. According to ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, ''The effects of Rumsfeld's policies have been devastating both to America's international reputation as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and to the hundreds, even thousands of individuals who have suffered at the hands of US forces."

If the US military is such an oppressive persecutor of American civil liberties, then why couldn't the ACLU find a single plaintiff outside of Iraq and Afghanistan?

The ACLU does not even claim that the alleged abuses against the foreign detainees could lead to similar violations against persons in the United States. The only derivative harms cited in the press release relate to military concerns. ACLU co-counsel is quoted as saying that Rumsfeld, by his actions, ''imperils our troops and undermines the war effort."

Rather than Rumsfeld, it is the ACLU's actions that imperil our troops and undermine the war effort. Without a doubt, the abuses documented at Abu Ghraib were a disgrace and an embarrassment to anyone who believes in this country.

However, for an organization as prominent as the ACLU to claim that it is the policy of the US military to torture and abuse foreign detainees and that ''thousands" of foreign individuals have been harmed by the US military only denigrates the well-earned reputation of our troops as liberators and protectors. This distortion only increases the risks faced by our soldiers serving abroad and makes it harder for them to prosecute the war against the terrorists who threaten our nation.

While I am not an ACLU member and seldom find myself aligned with its politics, I have always respected the organization's reputation as a defender of civil liberties. However, the strength of those principles has been questioned in recent years by commentators who note that the ACLU has not defended the First Amendment rights of prolife protesters with the same zeal exercised on behalf of abortion-rights advocates.

For those who provide financial support to the ACLU because of its stated commitment to American civil liberties, it is either a good day or a sad day. It is a good day if the Rumsfeld lawsuit signifies that American civil liberties are in such excellent shape that the ACLU can afford to divert resources to an unconnected matter. However, it is a sad day if the ACLU has chosen to place a political agenda above its core mission.

Anil Adyanthaya is a lawyer and writer who lives in Brookline.

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