- Senior Policy Analyst for George Soros’ Open Society Institute and Open Society Policy Center
- Was named Senior Counsel to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in February 2007
On February 8, 2007, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appointed Joseph Onek to be her Senior Counsel. A 1967 graduate of Yale Law School, Onek once worked as a law clerk for Justice William J. Brennan and as Assistant Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the private sector, he was a Partner in the law firms Crowell & Moring LLP and Onek Klein & Farr.
Established in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, OSPC helped draft the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 2004, which was designed to roll back, in the name of defending civil liberties, vital national-security policies that had been adopted following September 11th. OSPC’s range of concerns includes also “the proper treatment of detainees” — a reference to the al Qaeda combatants currently incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.
Extending their advocacy on behalf of inmates to the American prison system at large, Onek and OSPC consider “rehabilitation,” rather than punishment, to be the proper function of criminal justice. Key to the attainment of this objective, in OSPC’s calculus, are taxpayer-funded “services and treatment” programs designed to help ease prison inmates’ transition back into society after their release.
Onek also serves as Senior Counsel for the Constitution Project, an organization that calls for the United States to abandon most of the aggressive, post-9/11 anti-terrorism and anti-crime measures it has undertaken — on grounds that such measures are misguided “government proposals that [have] jeopardized civil liberties.” Specifically, the Constitution Project:
- opposes President Bush’s decision to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals rather than in civilian courts
- opposes “the use of profiling” in law-enforcement and intelligence work alike
- holds that state and local law-enforcement agencies should be uninvolved in pursuing suspected terrorists
- opposes government efforts to “conduct surveillance of religious and political organizations”
- opposes “increased federal and state wiretap authority and increased video surveillance”
- calls for the creation of a commission “to investigate the abuse of people held at detention facilities such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay” (“When you think about it,” Onek says, “Guantanamo became a symbol around the world for American disrespect for law.”)
Onek was formerly the Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, which:
- proposes increased funding for “child care and early education initiatives” such as Head Start
- opposes “family cap” policies that would make welfare recipients ineligible for incrementally higher payments if they procreate further while on public assistance
- advocates “a comprehensive range” of new, government-funded services for “low-income children and their parents”
- calls for “reorienting the child support program into an income support program, emphasizing the need to improve family resources by providing tailored services to both parents”
- aims to make more money available to cover the cost of college tuition and “college support services” for “low-income adults”
- proposes to help ex-prisoners “find work, get safe housing, go to school, and access public benefits.”
To disseminate his perspectives to the widest possible audience, Onek has been an occasional guest blogger on the website of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.
Apart from the foregoing organizational affiliations, Onek has also held important posts in two presidential administrations. During the Carter administration, Onek was Deputy Counsel to the President. Under Bill Clinton, he served as State Department Rule of Law Coordinator and Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General.
In the latter role, Onek was a key figure in the Justice Department headed by Attorney General Janet Reno and Assistant Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. (Gorelick in 1995 issued the infamous “wall memo” to then-FBI Director Louis Freeh and U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White. This memo stressed the importance of maintaining a legal barrier, or “wall,” barring intelligence investigators and law-enforcement investigators from collaborating and sharing information — even if they were both trailing the same suspect who was plotting a terrorist act. This restriction — which had first been put in place by the Carter administration — greatly compromised the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
On June 21, 2005, Onek testified before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment. His chief concern involved Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which he referred to as “the so-called library records provision.” “The FBI,” Onek warned, “will seek financial records, employment records, transportation records, medical records and yes, sometimes, library records. … Inevitably, FBI investigations will sweep up sensitive information about innocent, law-abiding people.”
During his testimony, Onek also expressed deep concern about “the danger that the government will use the information it gathers and shares in ways that unfairly discriminate against Muslim Americans.” “Muslims will appear disproportionately on the government’s computer screens,” he explained, “because they are the people most likely (naturally and innocently) to visit, telephone and send money to places like Pakistan and Iraq. Inevitably, government officials will learn more about Muslim Americans than about other Americans.” He predicted that this would lead to the injustice of Muslims being disproportionately caught violating immigration laws, and that “[t]his unfairness will breed discontent in the Muslim community and undermine the fight against terrorism.”
“The government,” Onek added, “remains free to bring criminal or immigration cases against Muslim Americans, provided that it does not use information generated by anti-terrorist data-mining systems in cases not involving terrorism or violent crime. This limitation will require some segregation of information and impose some burdens on the government. But these burdens are a small price to pay to ensure fairness to all Americans and strengthen the fight against terrorism.”
In other words, Onek continues to advocate the same “wall” — barring intelligence officials and law-enforcement officials from sharing information and collaborating on investigations — that his former employers at the Clinton Justice Department sanctified in the 1990s.