Monday, August 31, 2009

Executing an innocent

Today, it was revealed that a Texas man executed in 2004 for setting fire to his home (killing his three children) was in fact, innocent (as overwhelming evidence suggests). According to a report by national arson expert Craig Beyler (as reported in a post at The American Constitution Society and linked here), " The investigators [in Willingham's case] had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination."

One wonders why this man was executed before this hard-hitting investigation took place. It goes without saying that it doesn't do Mr. Willingham (who professed his innocence throughout his sentence) much good now – he's been dead for five years.

As the National ACLU blog points out, a system that is flawed enough to put even one innocent person to death is not fit to impose the death penalty.

" It bears repeating that 135 people have been exonerated from this country’s death rows since 1973. One of those exonerees is Ernest Willis, who served 17 years after being convicted and sentenced to death for a crime nearly identical to Willingham’s. Given the overwhelming evidence from four separate forensic examinations of the fire — conducted by the Chicago Tribune, the Innocence Project (PDF), Dr. Gerald Hurst and Craig Beyler (PDF) — Texas has executed an innocent man. That state’s investigation of the evidence in Willingham’s case is too little, too late."

There's an exhaustively researched (and exceptionally well-written) New Yorker piece on the case as well.


All it takes is a little digging. Or, in the case of two ACLU lawyers pursuing government documents relating to prisoner abuses; a great deal of digging. An excellent New York Times piece published yesterday details the case that Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh have pursued to uncover sensitive information, and the incredible results of their efforts:

"The case has produced revelation after revelation: battles between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military over the treatment of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp; autopsy reports on prisoners who died in custody in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Justice Department’s long-secret memorandums justifying harsh interrogation methods; and day-by-day descriptions of what happened inside the Central Intelligence Agency’s overseas prisons."

To put it plainly, we know so much about the abuses in overseas prisons – about the alleged torture practices, about the mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo and Abu Gharib and other high profile examples - as a direct result of all this digging (or "mining documents for truth" as the piece's title claims). It may be a costly endeavor, and it may take longer than it should, but the exposure of grievous wrongdoings and incompetence from the highest levels is crucial. Accountability is key in a healthy democracy – and there can be no hope of justice without it.

Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the article comes near the end:

"Their lawsuit continues. On Monday, the government faces yet another court-imposed deadline to turn over more documents — including the 2001 presidential directive authorizing the secret prisons — or explain why they must be withheld."

That should be interesting. We await further developments on the case.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Us A Timeline

Today, Kerry Eleveld (of The Advocate) published an update on the timeline for repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the troubling news? There is no timeline.

This revelation demonstrates more stalling from an administration more comfortable talking about and intellectualizing LGBT rights than it is at promoting legislation to ensure them.

Last Fall, President Obama received overwhelming endorsements from LGBT organizations based largely on promises to repeal harmful and discriminatory federal laws such as DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act, promises that have since failed to materialize as action. Instead, the administration has repeatedly pointed fingers at Congress, as if each administration doesn’t affect political dialogue and legislative priority by pushing the agenda on which it campaigned. Where the Obama administration could act, they sympathize, as if sympathy is advocacy.

And sometimes they do not sympathize at all. The LGBT community has seen some disappointing reversals in momentum on many civil rights issues. The first blow came in June, when the Justice Department released a brief not only defending the constitutionality of DOMA but equating LGBT relationships to incest. The DOJ has since released another brief that backed off that vigorous
defense, saying that it supports a repeal of DOMA without stepping up to lead the charge.

It took Congress over ten years to pass legislation to strengthen federal hatecrimes laws to include LGBT people. This summer, Attorney General Eric Holder testified before Congress in support of the Matthew Sheppard Act, 11 years after Sheppard was murdered for being gay. Over 13,000 men and women have been discharged from the military under DADT. The damage caused by DOMA is impossible to estimate. Words and promises cannot salve the wounds inflicted by discrimination. Only equal rights and protection will do.

- Adam Whitehurst

Facebook and Privacy, Round 2

After all the negative buzz surrounding facebook's slippery 3rd party privacy policy (as evidenced by the ACLU of Northern California's brilliant quiz), a group of facebook executives hosted a conference call announcing changes.

Hosted yesterday (and partially transcribed on the Wall Street Journal), highlighted a few of the new policies.

From the post: " Michael Richter…says the site will add new notifications explaining policies and practices, and add technical changes that will give users more control over their information. Facebook will also add a “privacy tour” that users will have access to when signing up."

On the subject of third party developers having access to private profile information (which is the key problem, as we stated previously in our Pop Quiz blog), there will be restrictions on what app developers can look at:

" As app developers require certain categories of information from the user, the developer will ask as needed, rather than asking for it all upfront"

So, it sounds as if users will indeed have more control over information they'd like to keep private. We can expect worldwide notifications and the revised privacy policy "in about a month".

Score one for civil rights online! Although, we should mention that users still need to be vigilant about privacy concerns and what kinds of information they post online anywhere, facebook included.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boston shelves 5-zone proposal, a move the ACLU of Massachusetts urged

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson announced yesterday that she has scrapped a student assignment proposal that the ACLU of Massachusetts, (along with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association), opposed. That five-zone plan would have allowed Boston to save money on busing at the expense of access to quality schools for families living in some of Boston’s poorest, largely minority neighborhoods.

With our support, Boston has applied for a federal grant to assist the district in enlisting the help of experts to craft a new plan, with community input, that ensures equitable access to high quality education for all Boston students, within racially and ethnically diverse schools and classrooms. We applaud Superintendent Johnson for taking this important step.

- Amy Reichbach, Racial Justice Fellow

Carol Rose on Broadside

Carol Rose, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, put in an excellent appearance recently on Broadside with Jim Braude, where she spoke about the CIA Interrogation report and the upcoming investigation.

Check it out here!

Asking the Tough Questions about Interrogation

Now that the CIA has been taken off primary interrogation duty (following the release of the 2004 report chronicling prisoner abuses), we're wondering "now what?"

The current administration has plans to create a new FBI-managed office to handle high level interrogations, one that will adhere to the Army Field Manual's standards (forbidding the use of the more extreme/abusive tactics), but full details have not been disclosed.

This NPR News post sheds a good deal of light on the current thinking – and on the actual Army Field Manual rules.

From the story:

"The Army Field Manual does allow for some more severe techniques to be used in certain circumstances, such as sleep deprivation. But while the CIA allowed detainees to be kept awake for 180 hours straight, the Army Field Manual says that prisoners must be allowed to sleep for at least four hours every day.

A former senior U.S. counterterrorism official says most of the time interrogations of the kind conducted by the FBI, that do not employ severely coercive techniques, 'will still yield the needed, and arguably better, intelligence'"

We're following the creation of the new office – and the current investigation – with great interest.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Kennedy's Civil Rights Legacy

All around the commonwealth and the country, citizens are mourning the loss of Edward M. Kennedy, longtime Massachusetts Senator and defender of civil rights.

From his first appointment in the Senate in 1962, he made it his mission to protect and defend the rights of all, leaving his mark on issues and activities as diverse as racial discrimination, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, fighting for environmental justice, advocating LGBT rights and especially, in his final days, fighting vehemently for healthcare reform.

The ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts honored him with the Roger Baldwin Award in 2006 – our highest recognition of significant contributions to the cause of civil rights and civil liberties, for his tireless efforts.

Kennedy's very first speech in the Senate in April 1964 proved an excellent preview for the rest of his political life. Speaking about the civil rights bill, and referencing his brother's death, he said:

"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long…If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another, we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace."

Over the years, he accumulated the reputation that served his nickname, the "liberal lion". He advocated strongly for LGBT rights, long before it was politically fashionable to do so -- in fact, he was one of only 14 votes against the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" in 1996. In 2003, when gay and lesbian couples won the right to legally marry from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Kennedy offered this:

"The nation’s eyes were on Massachusetts today, and they saw a triumph for civil rights and fundamental fairness. Today’s historic vote will have a national impact on civil rights for years to come. Massachusetts has led the nation in education, in health care and in biotechnology, and today Massachusetts renewed its commitment as a proud leader in civil rights."

He fought for what he believed in to his very last days– and his legacy of standing strong against the injustices of the status quo will long be remembered.

Honoring Senator Kennedy

As you've likely heard, Senator Edward M. Kennedy passed away last night. While we prepare more coverage and reflections on the life and times of "The Liberal Lion", we'd like to share this statement from ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose:

"Even as we mourn the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy, we remember his lifetime of contributions to the cause of civil rights and civil liberties.

In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts gave Senator Kennedy its highest honor, the Roger Baldwin Award, named for the Massachusetts-born founder of the ACLU.

On behalf of our more than 22,000 members statewide, we gave this award to Senator Kennedy in recognition of his passionate dedication to the pursuit of liberty and justice. Senator Kennedy gave his first major speech on the Senate floor in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he played a role in every civil rights battle in Congress for nearly 50 years. In recent years, he stood strongly for the rule of law, opposing measures such as the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and domestic surveillance of ordinary Americans.

This work made Senator Kennedy a champion of freedom throughout the nation -- and that is how he should be remembered today."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pop Quiz

As you may or may not have noticed, we're beginning to really delve into the brave new world of social media here at The ACLU of Massachusetts. We're reaching out onto avenues such as Twitter and Facebook to better connect with members and readers and anyone with an interest in civil liberties, especially in the commonwealth.

However, a recent message from our Northern California affiliate sparked up a few concerns regarding Facebook quizzes and privacy issues.

Apparently, Facebook quizzes (fun, typically pop-culture related quizzes that friends can share) inevitably share profile information with the party that developed the quiz. This opens up a particularly unpleasant realm of possibilities – developers could easily store or share personal profile information, even if the user selects more restrictive privacy settings.

Taking a page from the site itself, ACLU of Northern California actually devised a quiz called What Do Quizzes Actually Know About You that rather ironically highlights the dangers of the format.

Facebook needs to quickly work on an upgrade to the privacy controls that limit third party access. If you're interested in getting the ball rolling, there's an online petition to sign, again, courtesy of our friends in Northern California.

Inside the C.I.A. Report on Interrogation

Just yesterday, the Justice Department released the once-secret 2004 report on "advanced interrogation tactics" that lists, in grim detail, alleged abuses that went on in C.I.A. run prisons overseas. We've been covering torture and prisoner abuse cases for the last two days, but nothing thus far has been as extreme – and frankly, disturbing – as some of the findings gathered in the document.

It's also worth noting that some portions have been edited, and that anyone may peruse the document at will – as it's being hosted, in full, at The New York Times' website.

There are entire pages devoted to the description of "Specific Unauthorized or Undocumented techniques" which include "handgun and power drill", "threats", "smoke", "stress positions", "stiff brush and shackles", "pressure points", "mock executions", "use of smoke", "use of cold", "water dousing" and "hard takedown".

Aside from the black marks that obscure portions of the report, it's a rather difficult read. Some of the techniques described were truly brutal – to say nothing of their breach of civil liberties, prisoners' rights, and international law. To say that some of these methodologies qualify as "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" seems an understatement.

The report may also be downloaded as a .pdf here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Accountability for Torture, Part 2

It’s a major news day here at the ACLU of Massachusetts – we just found out that Attorney General Eric Holder going to go forward with the previously reported CIA prisoner abuse cases, and he’s already appointed a prosecutor.

John Durham, a 25-year veteran of the Justice Department, will head the investigation into the approximately 12 cases of alleged prisoner abuse.

That’s not all. On the heels of this announcement, the Obama administration revealed that an entirely new office will be created to handle all future interrogations.

From an NPR news post:

The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group will be managed by the FBI, although it will continue to draw upon interrogation experts at the CIA, the Defense Department and other agencies. A director for the office has yet to be named, but the number two official will come from a U.S. intelligence agency.

Under new rules, U.S. interrogators will be required to adhere to the Army Field Manual's regulations on interrogations. This will limit the use of some harsher techniques, including sleep deprivation, while other controversial techniques — including waterboarding — have already been banned.”

We applaud the leadership involved with these decisions . Both measures are set to increase accountability of intelligence gathering agencies and place limitations on interrogation practices, sorely needed measures in the face of alleged widespread abuse.

Accountability for Torture? Yes, please.

Torture – and our previous Administration’s shady past with it - have been hot topics lately, with many of us calling for actual accountability on behalf of our former leaders. We may soon get our wish – just today, the New York Times published a story that details the Office of Professional Responsibility’s formal advice to open several C.I.A. prisoner abuse cases that were shelved for undisclosed reasons. Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to step up and pursue the cases, which could mean criminal prosecution for guilty parties in the agency.

From the story:

Mr. Holder, who questioned the thoroughness of previous inquiries by the Justice Department, is expected to announce within days his decision on whether to appoint a prosecutor to conduct a new investigation; in legal circles, it is believed to be highly likely that he will go forward with a fresh criminal inquiry.”

The cases themselves (of which there are approximately twelve) involve allegations of severe prisoner abuse, including “how C.I.A. officers carried out mock executions and threatened at least one prisoner with a gun and a power drill.” Manadel al-Jamadi’s 2003 death (which occurred as he was being held by the C.I.A.) is among the cases in question.

Torture is a grievous violation of basic human rights – and basic decency – and the apparent widespread abuse of prisoners in the years following the 9/11 attacks proves just how vital accountability is. If these accusations are correct, we should actively pursue justice and advocate for an end to so-called “advanced interrogation” techniques that so plainly violate civil liberties.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How useful is video surveillance, really?

Thursday's Boston Metro (Cities, towns weigh benefits of cameras) covered the continuing controversy over Department of Homeland Security video surveillance cameras in the Boston area, and highlighted ACLU concerns.

The article led with Lt. Phil Harrington of the Brookline Police Department saying, "I think this just solidifies the idea that these [cameras] have great benefits." But we think the jury is still out on that.

Video images did show a pickup truck that might have been involved in an abduction and rape in Brookline earlier this week -- but we apparently don't know for certain yet if it's the right truck.

Then, Thursday, police made an arrest. We hope they're on the right trail and have arrested one of the culprits, but we don't know that for sure yet either.

It's also important to remember that the video images the cameras captured might not be of any use at all if the victim hadn't escaped and told police what to look for in the recordings. The cameras certainly didn't prevent this crime, and even if they did capture images of the truck near the scene of the crime, they apparently didn't get video of the actual abduction.

So how "great" are the cameras' benefits, really?

Then there's the fact that one of the main original reasons the Department of Homeland Security put up the money for the cameras in the first place was that they were supposed to be useful in the event of a terrorist attack or an evacuation of the city. That raised civil liberties concerns because the plans called for networking the cameras in nine Greater Boston communities, and it raised questions over who would control the cameras and the data they collected. As a result, civil libertarians organized and won votes against them in both Brookline and Cambridge.

The ACLU doesn't oppose video surveillance in specific sensitive locations where it can be helpful to keep people safe or enforce the law, such as entrances and exits to transit systems, stadiums, or for a limited time in a particular area as part of a specific investigation -- but there are serious concerns about the cost of surveillance cameras, their lack of effectiveness, and a lack of control over how they are used. In our case, going after criminal activity with video surveillance doesn't require the kind of infrastructure that Homeland Security was putting in place.

The fact is that video surveillance is not a magic solution to crime, and government surveillance of citizens in the name of security has been a hallmark of totalitarian societies throughout the world. We really need to consider how far we want to move in that direction.

You can learn more about what's wrong with public video surveillance here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lacking Firepower?

With the possibility of arming Boston Police with semiautomatic assault rifles back in the news (Boston police firepower lacking, says city's top FBI agent) we need to ask some serious questions.

In the piece, Warren T. Bamford’s (Boston’s “top FBI agent”) says that Boston is more vulnerable to terrorist attacks (such as the massacre in Mumbai last year) since our forces are apparently lacking in heavy firepower.

From the article:
“‘All things being equal, if a terrorist decides, ‘OK, we’re going to do something like what took place in Mumbai,’ well, where would you go?’’ Bamford said. “If you have a choice of a metropolitan city, would I go to New York, with 40,000 police officers, would I go to Los Angeles, with 8,000, or would I go to Boston, with 3,500?... And I know there’s no assault rifles in the Boston Police Department?’’’

There is, in fact, a plan to arm certain divisions of the BPD with the guns, bringing up a cavalcade of issues regarding the use of said weapons.

There could be circumstances in which the use of these weapons is called for, and nobody one wants to see the police outgunned in those situations. The oft-cited tragedy in Mumbai is, of course, a noteworthy example. However, the analogy fails to acknowledge that Pakistan and India are warring nations separated only by motorboat ride – and Bamford admits that Boston faces no similar threat.

Moreover, the article suggests that Bamford wants to hand out the guns to local police, enabling them to patrol the city's neighborhoods outfitted with military assault rifles.

Finally, it is worth exploring whether these kinds of arms encourage excessive use of force, or whether the cause-effect relationship Bamford is implying is truly sound – the presence of sophisticated weaponry has not always proven the best measure against terrorists, as 9/11 taught us.

As with any issue regarding lethal force, we need to ask questions. What are these guns truly capable of? Who will get to use them, and under what circumstances – and who will be in charge of making those decisions?

Questions like these have come up before with far less-lethal weapons than military assault rifles. Consider the case of Victoria Snelgrove, who died in Boston in 2004 after a Boston Police officer shot her in the eye with a pepper spray bullet. At the time, the ACLU provided recommendations for "less lethal force" policies. If even weapons like this can cause problems, we should be much more careful when talking about semiautomatic assault rifles.