In a move that has raised more than one set of eyebrows, the American Civil Liberties Union announced Monday that it plans to hire former Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) "to work on informational and privacy issues."
Barr, a strident prohibitionist, is best known to drug policy reformers for blocking Washington, DC, from counting votes for a 1998 medical marijuana initiative. As a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District government, Barr attached a rider (the "Barr Amendment") to the annual appropriations bill barring the District from counting the votes. When the federal courts overturned the ban on counting the ballots -- the measure won with 69% of the vote -- Barr again acted to prevent the District from implementing the will of the voters.
His Barr Amendment, now an annual addition to the District's appropriations bill, also blocked an effort this year to put medical marijuana back on the ballot in DC. A federal circuit court ruled this year that: "There can be no doubt that the Barr Amendment restricts plaintiffs' First Amendment right to engage in political speech." The ruling, however, was overturned without explanation by a federal appeals court. Barr applauded the appeals court reversal, saying it "recognized the right and responsibility of Congress to protect citizens from dangerous, mind-altering narcotics."
When it comes to issues other than drug policy, however, Barr has stood up for citizens confronting an aggressive, prying federal government. In recent years, he has been one of the few congressional voices raising the alarm over increasing government snooping. He opposed the creation of a national ID system, raised a hue and cry about the FBI's Carnivore internet snooping system, opposed proposed "Know Your Customer" banking regulations, and derided the aborted Operation TIPS citizen-snitch program. Barr was also instrumental in persuading the House to pass a bill requiring the federal government to consider privacy implications of new regulations.
"Rep. Barr and the ACLU disagree on many other issues, but we have no doubt that a strange bedfellows collaboration between us will yield great things for informational and data privacy rights," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office in a Monday press release.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said that Barr's agreement to work with the ACLU "demonstrates how deeply concerns about personal privacy cut across partisan lines." He noted that the ACLU has "no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent values." The press release noted that the ACLU is also in conversations with former House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX). With Republicans in charge of both Congress and the White House, said Murphy, the ACLU must be realistic if it wants to influence policy in Washington. "If we're going to affect federal policy, we have to have access," she said.
If the marriage goes through, Barr would consult for the ACLU in its fight against post-September 11 legislation that attack traditional privacy rights. Barr would concentrate on "sneak and peek" warrants, which allow black-bag searches conducted without the knowledge of the target, and other informational issues, said the press release. Neither the ACLU nor leading drug policy reformers were available for comment in the run-up to the Thanksgiving holidays.