Renewed Relevance – Chronicle of Philanthropy – by Suzanne Perry – PDF

2006 Renewed Relevance

Civil-liberties groups gain supporters as more Americans express concern over terrorism policies

The US government’s cam­paign to track down sus­pected terrorists following. the September 11 attacks has caused alarm among civil-liberties and human-rights groups. But it has also helped them attract many new supporters and sharply in­crease donations.

The alleged torture of detainees in overseas prisons, the USA Pa­triot Act, and electronic surveil­lance of Americans are among the issues that now consume many ad­vocacy groups.

“When 9/11 happened, our work just literally doubled on us,” says Anthony D. Romero, executive di­rector of the American Civil Liber­ties Union, in New York.

His group has started a cam­paign to change the Patriot Act, which it says gives the govern­ment too much power to investi­gate suspected terrorists. It has helped to uncover a steady stream of much-publicized government documents about U.S. interrogation techniques at the prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq. And in January the group sued the National Security Agency to stop it from monitoring telephone and Internet communi­cations of Americans without court approval.

The result: By every possible measure—members, revenue, staf­fing, grants—the organization is on a roll. The number of dues-pay­ing members, for example, has leaped by 81 percent since mid-2002, from 308,000 to 558,000. In 2001, the organization collected $13.6-million in dues. Last year, the figure was $26.2-million.

But Mr. Romero says it’s a “best of times, worst of times” situation. “It’s the best of times because the organization is clearly relevant. Its work has never been more salient to the press. Its members and sup­porters are very much aligned with the core mission and values,” he says. “But the political climate and the challenges we confront have never been greater.”

50,000 New Members

Amnesty International USA, in New York, has also grown since September 11, albeit less quickly. The group—which is leading a ma­jor campaign to get the United States to renounce the use of tor­ture in overseas prisons—has picked up about 50,000 new dues-paying members since 2001, an in­crease of about 15 percent, and its budget has grown by about 24 per­cent, to $44 million.

“Unlike organizations, like arts organizations or environmental organizations, that have suffered post-9/11, I think people who are concerned about government over­reaching or who want the United States’ reputation and credibility to be maintained, have gravitated toward Amnesty,” says William Schulz, the group’s executive director.

Mr. Schulz, who is leaving Amnesty next month after 12 years at the helm, weathered one of the biggest backlashes against critics of the US. “war on terror” last year, when Irene Kahn, secre­tary-general of Amnesty Interna­tional in London, called the Guan­tanamo prison “the gulag of our times” because detainees are held there without legal recourse. The statement was condemned by a host of high-level American offi­cials, including President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—and by countless broadcast and newspaper com­mentators.

Mt Rumsfeld called the charge “reprehensible,” adding, “those who make such outlandish charges lose any claim to objectivi­ty or seriousness.”

Mr. Schulz says that Ms. Kahn made the comment without con­sulting the U.S. office and that he himself probably would not have used the term “gulag.” But Amnesty’s supporters rallied around the group. “There were many people who may not have agreed with Irene’s characteriza­tion but who didn’t like to see the government ganging up that way on Amnesty,” Mr. Schulz says.

While 15 to 20 people said they were canceling their memberships because of the “gulag” statement, Amnesty raised twice as much in online donations—$230,000—in June 2005, the month after Ms. Kahn spoke, as it did the previous month, says Wende Gozan, the group’s communications director.

‘Overwhelmed Our Office’

The Center for Constitutional Rights, in New York, a small, left-leaning legal-advocacy group, has been consumed by terrorism-relat­ed issues since shortly after the 2001 attacks, when it began rounding up lawyers to challenge the Bush administration’s decision to detain prisoners from the war in Afghanistan in Guantanamo indefinitely.

“We were the first group to go out front,” says Michael Ratner, the center’s president. Since then, the center’s workload, revenue, and employees have steadily in­creased. “In some ways-you could say it’s overwhelmed our office,” Mr. Ratner says. Since 2001, the budget has almost doubled to more than $3 million—and 30 employees now squeeze into small quarters that were shared by just 19 people two years ago.

One of the center’s major victo­ries was a Supreme Court decision in June 2004, giving Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detentions in federal court.

“That did a large part of our job for us, of making this case under­standable, that we weren’t just a crazy lefty organization,” says Kevi P. Brannelly, the center’s de­velopment director. As one meas­ure of the center’s support, Ms. Brannelly says, the number of individuals who make donations has grown by about 30 percent during the last 18 months, to 6,000.

The organization is now work­ing with 450 lawyers who have volunteered their time to persuade authorities to give the Guan­tanamo detainees, mostly Muslim Arabs, access to lawyers so they can file court challenges. In Janu­ary, the center took on a different issue, going to court to challenge the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance—a chal­lenge similar to that filed by the American Civil Liberties Union but using slightly different legal grounds.

The center, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has in a way taken on a new personality, says Mr. Ratner. It previously used the courts as a way to force change in areas such as civil rights, repre­senting only people it agreed with politically.

Now, he says, “Rather than rep­resenting movements for social change, we’re actually trying to protect the most fundamental rights of people; the right to have a trial, the right not to be tor­tured,” he says.

New Division

The post-September 11 era has also prompted other groups to re­think how they are working. Hu­man Rights First, in New York, created an entire new division, the US. Law and Security Program, to work on issues such as Guan­tanamo, torture, and intelligence gathering, and added eight staff members to run it.

“It’s now the second-largest pro­gram at Human Rights First,” be­hind a longstanding project on asylum rights, says Deborah N. Pearlstein, the program’s director.

She says Human Rights First also decided it needed to go beyond its traditional approach of pursu­ing lawsuits and issuing reports; making.s greater effort to mobilize the public and to seek new allies. “We’re reaching out to people we haven’t known before, seeing where we have common ground,” she says.

For example, it worked with a group of retired military officers on a successful campaign to per­suade Congress to adopt the so-called McCain amendment, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman, and de­grading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. military custody.

Human Rights First has been able to expand its efforts partly be­cause it has won support from foundations. At the end of 2005, it was awarded a total of $5 million in multi-year grants from the At­lantic Philanthropies and the Jeht Foundation, both in New York, for its work on torture and other na­tional security issues. Amnesty In­ternational also received a grant from the Jeht Foundation—$250,000 to support its “Denounce Torture” campaign in 2005.

The Ford Foundation, in New York, has provided numerous grants for work on national secu­rity issues, including $200,000 last year to the Center for Constitu­tional Rights for its Guantanamo work, and $50,000 just recently to the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minneapolis, for its Campaign Against U.S. Torture.

The Minneapolis center, which provides counseling and other services to torture victims, decided to start the new campaign to offer a different perspective on the use of abusive interrogation tech­niques in U.S. military prisons, says Douglas A. Johnson, its exec­utive director.

“Our clients find the whole no­tion that this country uses torture extremely frightening, so it inter­feres with our clinical practice,” he says.

Furthermore, he says, the cen­ter can send the strong message that torture doesn’t work. “Our clients have told us over and over again that they would have said anything to get it stopped.”

The center, which added a half­time position in Washington to co­ordinate the campaign, will use the Ford Foundation grant to work with other torture-treatment centers and persuade health-care workers and evangelical Chris­tians to undertake efforts to influ­ence policy makers, Mr. Johnson says.

As established organizations re­group, new ones are emerging, for example the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which held an inaugural conference in January. The group aims to get re­ligious leaders to campaign against the use of torture from a religious perspective, says the Rev. Bob Moore, executive director of the Peace Action Education Fund, in Princeton, N.J., which is housing the campaign until it sets up as a separate nonprofit group.

“It goes to the heart of all three faith traditions, that human be­ings are created in the image of God,” Mr. Moore says. “That gives sanctity to human life that would mitigate against torture.”