STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we're going to hear how a long and determined effort led to a criminal investigation. A Justice Department prosecutor will review possible criminal cases stemming from CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that yesterday. The Americans Civil Liberties Union has been pushing for an investigation like this. It has waged a five-year legal battle to uncover details of how the government was handling national security cases. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: The ACLU says Holder doesn't need to do a preliminary review. He should just go ahead and prosecute. Anthony Romero is the ACLU's executive director.
Mr. ANTHONY ROMERO (Executive Director, ACLU): It seems as if he's appeasing the political interests in Washington not to take this full bore. And frankly, what further proof do we need that the laws were violated?
OVERBY: It's language like this that inflames Republicans on Capitol Hill. Here's Missouri Senator Christopher Bond back in April, accusing President Obama of kowtowing to the ACLU.
Senator CHRISTOPHER BOND (Republican, Missouri): It's up to the president to choose our terror fighter over terrorists, to choose troops over ACLU lawyers, to choose national security over politics.
OVERBY: But a big part of the ACLU's reputation has always been the way it infuriates politicians - usually conservatives, but sometimes liberals. Romero took the reins at the ACLU a week before the 9/11 attacks. Since then, the issues of detention, surveillance, transparency and torture have dominated the group's agenda. Nearly 40 lawyers and other professionals have been added to the budget.
Laura Murphy was head of the ACLU Washington office in 2001. She remembers polls showing many Americans ready to give up civil liberties to stay safe.
Ms. LAURA MURPHY (Former Head of the ACLU Washington office): There were armed soldiers all over Washington. You had F-15 and F-16 fighter jets patrolling the skies over Washington, D.C. and New York.
OVERBY: Groups advocating for civil liberties and human rights rallied together, and even in the aftermath of 9/11, they claimed some small victories. One was forcing Congress to pause long enough to hold a single hearing on the Patriot Act, a law that broadened the government's surveillance powers. Murphy says there was more.
Ms. MURPHY: We emboldened people to speak up about how torture was outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. We emboldened them to ask questions of the Department of Homeland Security and their detention practices.
OVERBY: Now the rights groups have a web of alliances, coordinating strategies and writing supporting briefs for lawsuits against the government. The ACLU works with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, assisting military attorneys who defend detainees at Guantanamo.
And in June 2004, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to get documents on American detention and interrogation of prisoners overseas. That led to a steady drip of revelations, and yesterday to a CIA inspector general's report from 2004. The report reveals threats against detainees and other possible violations of U.S. law.
Romero says the Obama administration has to confront the legacy of the anti-terrorism policies, how they were formulated and how they were carried out.
Mr. ROMERO: What's clear is that this is not going away, and the Obama administration really is rather foolhardy in thinking that perhaps by deferring it or by taking its sweet old time and having a preliminary investigation, they really are putting their head in the sand.
OVERBY: Among the battles yet to come, the ACLU and others want to shut down the military tribunals at Guantanamo and they want disclosure of photos depicting interrogation techniques in Iraq.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.