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Don't Support Terrorists? Check This Box

Local Matters


Published August 30, 2005 at 11:03 p.m.

Vermont -- The Lamoille Family Center in Morrisville offers runaway teens a shower and a bed for the night. It organizes playgroups for preschoolers, and teaches pregnant teens how to keep a budget, balance a checkbook and be good mothers. In other words, it's not exactly seething with terrorist sleeper cells.

Nevertheless, the Lamoille Family Center is now required by one of its funders, the United Way of Lamoille County, to sign a federal antiterrorism pledge certifying that it doesn't support terrorists or terrorist groups. And if the agency refuses to sign, it could lose all of its United Way funding -- about $12,000 a year.

"I've been sitting on this and fuming about it for about a month and a half," says Dave Connor, co-director of the Lamoille Family Center, a nonprofit agency that's been around for 30 years and serves about 2500 families in the Lamoille Valley. The United Way's new "counterterrorism compliance form," which arrived in the mail without a cover sheet or letter of explanation, now requires Connor to check seven boxes certifying, among other things, that none of his 31 employees appears on a federal antiterrorism watch list or provides "material support or resources" to terrorist groups. Connor must also "take reasonable affirmative steps" to prevent fraud that would allow United Way money to end up in "the wrong hands."

Connor, who describes the compliance form as "McCarthyite," says he doesn't have the time, resources or inclination to start poking into the political activities of his staff. "To put the Lamoille Family Center in the role of being a cop is just crazy," he says. "The whole thing just sounds like John Ashcroft on acid."

But the new policy at the United Way of Lamoille County isn't the work of some lone zealot -- it came from much higher up. The United Way of America now requires compliance forms from all of its chapters nationwide in order to comply with the terms of the USA Patriot Act.

"We're not setting out the law. We're just telling [United Way chapters] what the law says," explains Susan Gilmore, vice president of membership accountability for the United Way of America in Alexandria, Virginia. Gilmore says the compliance form was drafted by staff attorneys after several United Way chapters asked for clarification on how they should protect themselves from criminal or civil liability in the event a member group is found to have links to suspect activities.

An internal memo dated November 16, 2004, from the United Way's Office of General Counsel lays out the problem: "The U.S. government has shown a willingness to pursue nonprofits under the Patriot Act for providing material support to terrorists or terrorist organizations. It has taken action against several Muslim charities that may have had dealings with terrorists or terrorist organizations."

Gilmore admits that the compliance pledges probably won't do much to stop terrorists. Still, she says, the policy was unavoidable. "It's like you tell your kids, 'Sorry, but you don't get to pick and choose which laws you're going to follow. The law is the law,'" she says. "One of the things we say in our trainings is, 'If you don't like this, talk to your congressman.'"

But civil libertarians warn that antiterrorism pledges recall the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

"I think blacklists -- which essentially is what this is -- are really frightening," says Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. "Why would anybody think a terrorist group is actually going to apply to the United Way for money and then would say they're a terrorist group? This is just bizarre."

Gilbert sees a host of other problems arising from the compliance forms, including the difficulty of simply determining who's on a federal watch list. According to a report from the General Accounting Office, the federal government maintains more than a dozen watch lists in various agencies, including the FBI, State Department, Treasury Department, Commerce Department and Transportation Security Administration. And, as the Washington Post reported last year, the federal government's "no-fly list" had 16 names on it on September 11, 2001. Today, it has more than 20,000.

Moreover, these lists are fraught with errors and inaccuracies that can cause considerable hassles for the public. Among the people who have been delayed or prevented from boarding planes: Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia).

The ACLU itself has been asked to sign antiterrorism compliance forms because it receives funding from the Ford Foundation and the Combined Federal Appeal, an annual charitable drive for federal employees. The group refused to sign.

Vermont's State Employees Combined Charitable Appeal also requires fund recipients to sign antiterrorism pledges, since it's also administered through the United Way. A lawsuit brought by 13 nonprofit organizations against the Federal Charitable Appeal is pending.

But Gilmore at the United Way of America says she hasn't heard of any nonprofits that have refused to sign their forms, or been denied funding.

At the Lamoille Family Center, Connor says he can't afford to "stand on his soapbox" and fight this on principle. He notes, "That $12,000 is still pretty important." But he plans to write at least one angry letter, to the United Way of America.