A constitutional lawyer known for challenging the Bush administration is litigating his newest case between the covers of a book.
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, visits the Valley today and Friday to talk about his program’s work and to promote The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book. Three events are open to the public. The center represents Guantanamo detainees and works to counter torture, “extraordinary rendition” of prisoners and what it sees as unlawful governmental surveillance.
In a Gazette interview this week, Ratner — who is considered one of the nation’s top defenders of civil rights — spoke of his center’s mission and its ongoing work to hold people in power accountable.
QUESTION: What is wrong with the debate, in the past few years, about whether torture “works”?
ANSWER: What is sad, disheartening and wrongheaded about that debate is that torture is illegal and immoral. I think that arguing about whether it “works” undercuts the universal prohibition on torture. It is really sickening, and those who engage in these hypotheticals about the ticking time bomb should know better. Of course, there is a pragmatic argument about whether torture works and it is not difficult to demonstrate that the consequences of employing torture are heinous — not just for the victim but for society.
Q: If they do not speak out, are Americans complicit in their government’s use of torture?
A: We always ask where were the German people while the Holocaust was going on. We should be asking the same question about the American people. Where are they as their country runs offshore and secret torture prisons? Yes, many American people are complicit, but the architects of the torture program, the Bush administration and its legal and political enablers, are guiltier.
Q: Are mass violations of Constitutional rights still taking place?
A: Yes. Every detainee held without a trial is having his or her constitutional rights denied. And there are many — hundreds, possibly thousands. Every detainee held in secret detention is being denied fundamental constitutional rights. And there are many. Every detainee subject to torture or cruel treatment, and there are many, is having their rights violated.
Q: Your book presents a prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld. Is an actual prosecution impossible? Is a “truth commission” a reasonable compromise?
A: A truth commission without more is a grant of impunity. A truth commission that grants an amnesty is insufficient. A truth commission with subpoena power where evidence can be turned over to a prosecutor is a first step. However, I think there is sufficient evidence already for investigations by a prosecutor — much is already on the public record.
Actual prosecution is a possibility, but only if we demand it. If the American people and the politicians that surround them begin by saying prosecution is not politically feasible, we will have lost the fight before we began. We must begin with what is necessary and right, not what is politically feasible. What is right is accountability for war crimes and torture.
Q: Is CCR still pursuing prosecution of Rumsfeld in a European country?
A: Yes. We still have a case pending in Germany and are looking at other countries. A torturer is considered an enemy of all humankind and can be brought to justice wherever found. We hope to make this world a very small place for Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and others involved in the torture program. We may not get prosecutions in this country — and then Europe is the best hope — such prosecutions in Europe may well push U.S. officials to take prosecution more seriously.
Q: What do you say to those who allege CCR and other groups addressing these issues seek to draw blood from Bush administration officials for political reasons?
A: Many high-level Bush officials have denounced the torture program. Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, resigned over the issue of torture and has said war crimes were committed. Likewise with General Taguba who wrote the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib. So it is not just progressives who think that Bush officials have committed crimes. Prosecution is necessary if this country is to have any moral standing in the world. How do we protect our own soldiers and how do we criticize other countries that engage in torture if the U.S. has become one of the torture nations?
Q: Which is harder: preserving constitutional rights or getting the system to prosecute those in government who violate them?
A: They work hand in hand. You can not protect constitutional rights without prosecuting those who knowingly and deliberately violated such rights.
Q: Does Guantanamo remain a “law-free zone” — and is this likely to remain so?
A: Not anymore. Not since our victory in the Supreme Court in Boumediene (Boumediene v. Bush, 2008), where the court recognized the right of habeas corpus — the right to contest one’s detention in a court.
This was major victory and was made, I think, with the understanding that every human being has certain fundamental rights — among them the right not to be tossed into a prison and never heard from again. The right to go to a court.
Q: Your talk today at Smith is called “Reversing the War on Terror.” What aspects of that “war” would you most like to see undone?
A: In the first 100 days and beyond — a CCR campaign — we would like to see an end to the war paradigm in which acts of terrorism are seen as acts of war. (Call the 9/11 attacks what they were — crimes.) End torture, rendition and illegal detention.
Protect dissent. Abolish preventive detention. Limit the state secrets privilege. Stop warrantless wiretapping. Roll back executive power.
Q: How does the U.S. media’s coverage of constitutional rights issues compare to work by journalists in other countries? Give a letter grade to each and explain.
A: Media has buried the torture issue — especially TV media. I would give a B to some of our better newspapers on this issue and a D or F to TV. The issue is just not front and center as it ought to be.