Watchdog Groups Oppose Federal Watch Lists

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a campaign to oppose policies of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) that require some 10,000 non-profit groups that raise money through the CFC program to check their employees against federal "watch list" of terrorist suspects. The campaign, which has already drawn 15 other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Sierra Club, will pursue a variety of possible challenges to the CFC program’s new requirements, possibly including a lawsuit regarding its constitutionality.

"The government’s ‘war on terror’ now threatens America’s nonprofit charities," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. "The administration’s requirement to check employees against a watch list in order to receive CFC funds has created a climate of fear and intimidation that threatens the health and well-being of all non-profits – the people who depend on them, and, indeed, the nation as a whole."

The CFC, which facilitates charitable contributions from federal employees, military personnel, and retirees who receive pensions from the federal government, raised $250 million for thousands of NGOs in 2003. Last fall, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which administers the program, began requiring the NGOs that apply for participation in the program to certify that they do not "knowingly employ individuals or contribute funds to organizations" that are included on terrorist lists maintained by the federal government, the United Nations and the European Union (EU). The certification requirement stemmed from a 2001 executive order signed by President George W. Bush.

Two weeks ago, CFC’s director, Mara Patermaster, said that OPM expected that NGOs that benefited from the program would take "affirmative action to make sure they are not supporting terrorist activities."

"That would specifically include inspecting the lists," she said. "To just sign a certification without corroboration would be a false certification." The lists include thousands of names.

Like other beneficiaries that applied for CFC participation for 2004, the ACLU, which received some $500,000 from the CFC last year, signed the certification earlier this year. At a board meeting last month, however, some directors raised questions about whether it should have done so in light of the requirement that the organization check its employment records against the lists.

In a July 31 letter to Patermaster, Romero announced that it would resign from the CFC rather than accept its terms that violate the fundamental tenets of the organization.

"When we learned that the government expects thousands of nonprofits to check millions of nonprofit employees against government lists that are notoriously riddled with errors, the ACLU took immediate action and withdrew from the CFC," Romero said.

The other organizations that have joined the coalition intend to continue to be part of the CFC program but have vowed to press to change the certification requirements, he said.

Through other litigation regarding government "watch lists," the ACLU said it had determined that such lists are notoriously error-prone and generally fail to provide any effective recourse to individuals to correct errors. In addition, according to the ACLU, the rights to privacy and free association of employees come under threat when employers are forced to ask inappropriate questions that go far beyond their work qualifications and performance.

In reviewing one "watch list," for example, ACLU picked one at random – a "Julio Ramirez." An online search found hundreds of different people with that name at different addresses across the nation. Any NGO employing a "Julio Ramirez" would, under Patermaster’s interpretation, be obliged to ask potentially intrusive questions about his personal life, his beliefs, and his associations.

"The CFC requirement imposes a burden on the nonprofit community that it should not have to bear," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, one of the groups that has joined the coalition. "Breast Cancer Action should not be forced to choose between accepting these restrictions and putting federal employees’ contributions to good use to help women confronting a life-threatening illness."

Rick Cohen, who heads the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, warned that the requirement will likely hurt innocent people. "The result of the CFC policy," he said, will be not to fight terrorism, but the likelihood that CFC charities will refrain from hiring people whose names even sound like names that might be on the anti-terrorism lists, with the result of unwarranted discrimination against people with South Asia, Arab and Muslim names."

"This takes us back to the kind of policies that led us to round up and intern Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II because of the imagined threat they posed to safety and freedom."

Other groups that have joined the coalition include the Advocacy Institute, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, the National Partnership for Women and Families, OMB Watch, the Pain Relief Network, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

A number of major private foundations, such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, have also added conditions on their grants over the past year amid suggestions, mainly by Republicans in Congress, that their failure to ensure that their funds are not being used by their grantees to promote violence or terrorism could lead to the revocation of their tax-exempt status.

Several major universities, fearful that such conditions could harm academic freedom, have balked at signing the conditions, and the ACLU is currently seeking clarification from the Ford Foundation over the application of those conditions to a major pending grant, according to ACLU officials.


Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.