Erasing History at the ACLU

Stressing the paramount importance of transparency and accountability, the ACLU has been commendably relentless in seeking the release of government documents exposing post 9/11 torture and detention practices.  But while ACLU staff attorneys combat government secrecy, ACLU board members promote the secrecy of their own deliberations: a policy proposal now pending before the national board would end the longstanding practice of regularly taping national board, executive committee, and foundation board meetings and would require the destruction of historic meeting tapes, of which there are many.

ACLU staff members would have discretion to tape meetings, in order to assist in preparing minutes, and the Deputy Executive Director or General Counsel would have discretion to retain some records for "compelling reasons;" but pursuant to this policy, board members would have no right to ensure that meetings are taped and no right previously enjoyed to obtain meeting tapes.  Staff members would enjoy the power to create and destroy important pieces of the organization's historical record.

What prompted this remarkably unabashed rejection of transparency and accountability within the ACLU?  Recently, for a few years beginning in 2004, the organization's leadership was embarrassed by meeting tapes that exposed gross violations of principle and misstatements of facts (chronicled in my book Worst Instincts and documented in a publicly accessible Beacon Press archive at the Harvard Divinity School library.) 

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Naturally, tapes can greatly complicate efforts to deny or distort inconvenient truths. At the ACLU, for example, tapes of 2004 executive committee and national board meetings confirm what the leadership tried hard to obscure -- that executive director Anthony Romero rather proudly acknowledged privately advising the Ford Foundation to "parrot" the Patriot Act in its post 9/11 grant agreements and that the national board rejected a motion to rescind a 2004 blacklist agreement between the ACLU and the Bush Administration, which Romero had quietly authorized. Listen to the tape (or read the transcript) of a June, 2006 national board meeting, and you'll hear some board leaders rationalizing a proposal prohibiting ACLU board members from criticizing the ACLU (the proposal was withdrawn only after its public exposure).

Some tapes may be retained under the new, proposed taping policy only because (as a footnote to the policy memorandum observes) some tapes are now publicly available in the Beacon Press archive; but much will be destroyed. What's the official excuse for destroying tapes?  "(V)erbatim recordings are actually 'working papers,'" the committee that drafted the policy explains. "Thus, once adopted the minutes, not the 'working paper' recordings, are the official NB (national board) record."  

Of course, a tape is the most accurate and only entirely objective meeting record; minutes are easily and regularly sanitized, which is precisely why they're valued in the new, increasingly corporate ACLU: "Minutes are a board's way of managing the public view of what happens in a board meeting in an accurate manner," the erase history committee explains. The committee also worries about the "chilling effect" of recording exchanges, the possibility that remarks may be taken "out of context," and that taping may encourage "grandstanding" -- the sort of concerns usually raised by officials eager to write their own histories, free of objective, factual records.    

One excuse for erasing tapes the ACLU cannot use, is limited storage space -- a problem back when cassette tapes were used (and sometimes recycled). In recent years, meetings have been recorded digitally, and, in any case, meeting records that the ACLU prefers not to keep, or make publicly accessible in the near future, may be deposited at the ACLU archive at Princeton University, where, at least someday, they would be available to researchers. If the ACLU leadership has its way -- as it usually does -- that day will never come.  

(Photo: Flickr/Liz Henry)