It’s a Free Country – Washington Post Live Online Web Chat – Transcript – PDF




2002 It’s a Free Country Live Chat Transcript

In the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere — a global war on terrorism, high suspicion in the populace and suspected terrorists being held by the government, what has happened to dissent? Are there actual or simply perceived threats to our freedoms?

A new book, “It’s a Free Country” (RDV/Akashic Books, 2002) is a collection of essays by journalists, artists and activists that seeks to answer that question, and others. Michael Ratner, international human rights lawyer and vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was online to talk about his contribution, “Is This a Dark Age for Fundamental Legal Protection?” on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. ET.

Ratner is currently a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School. He is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and has worked there most of his 27 years of practice. Other positions have included: Special Counsel to President Aristide to assist in the prosecution of human rights crimes (1995-1996); Instructor, Yale Law School, International Human Rights Law Clinic (1990-1994); Legal Director, Center for Constitutional Rights (1984-1990); President, National Lawyers Guild (1982-1983); Instructor, N.Y.U. Law School, Federal Civil Rights Litigation (1973-1974); Clerk, U.S. District Court, Judge Constance Baker Motley (1970-1971) He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1970, Kent Scholar, Magna Cum Laude.

A transcript follows.

Editor’s Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Michael Ratner: I am the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, a non-profit group that litigates constitutional rights and international human rights cases. I am also a contributor to a recent book on civil rights–It’s A Free Country: Personal Freedom in America After September 11.

At the Center we have been very aggressive in fighting to protect constitutional rights in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. We have filed cases on behalf of post 9/11 non-citizen detainees in the US; we represent detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and with other organizations have filed cases against secret immigration hearings and the refusal of the justice department to release the names of the detainees in the US.

I believe we are facing the most serious threat to civil liberties in the last 50 years.

For more information visit my website: and the website of Center for Constitutional Rights:

Washington, D.C.: How bad do you think things will have to get regarding civil liberties before more of our legislators have the courage to stand up and dissent?

Michael Ratner: I thought they would stand up by this time. In the immediate wake of 9/11 I understood that many, like the rest of us, were frightened and therefore passed the USA Patriot Act without even reading it. But now that there has been time to reflect I hoped they would do better. The US has now asserted it can hold US citizens in Navy Brigs in the US and refuse to give them access to a lawyer and refuse to charge them. Ashcroft has claimed the right to wiretap attorneys and their clients without a court order. He even tried to push through the TIPS “inform on you neighbor program”–at least the legislators beat back part of this. Most of the laws have been aimed at non-citizens therefore making it easier for the citizens to disregard them–but we should be frightened that these laws will come back and bite citizens as well.

Arlington, Va.: Just thought I offer up a couple of points before you start wallowing around alleging that the current political climate is stifling dissenting opinion on the war on terror and/or the probable war in Iraq.

One, is that lots of allegedly educated people forget that, among other things, the First Amendment to the constitution guarantees you the right to have your say, not the right to have your way. Or for that matter the right to have what you have to say published on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Times.

Two, they idea that the media must give air time or newspaper space to fringe groups in the name of “balance” is as wrong as it is to interpret polls. If you insist in doing either, you need to at least put it in some context (65 percent of those polled support the war) and/or tell the reader exactly what the poll question was and what percentage of respondents answered in what way, not what some reporter thinks is their personal spin on the results.

One example will suffice: after hearing about all the huge angry protests at the Supreme Court during deliberations on Gore v. Bush, I had the opportunity to go down and view it for myself on a couple of occasions.

It was a joke. Yes, there were a few die-hards that ranted at times, put there were more media than protesters half the time and usually a dozen folks that would on cue march around in front on the camera when the lights went on. In my mind it was deliberately misrepresented by the media to look more significant than it was. Maybe the motivation was to generate higher ratings; maybe it was an attempt to influence the debate. In either case it was wrong and a corruption of the intended role of the “objective” media.

Finally, for a look at how the left really views the First Amendment, read Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick article on MSNBC: Free Speech 101.

Michael Ratner: I do think many people are afraid to speak out and dissent in this post 9/11 environment. This fear was engendered in part by statements by government officials. Recall Ari Fleischer saying “watch what you say and watch what you do” or Ashcroft accusing those who were critical of alleged deprivation of constitutional rights as aiding terrorism. When this is said by the chief law enforcement officer it has a chilling effect on speech particularly when it is coupled with an “unleashed” FBI that is free to spy on religious and political groups. This fear of dissenting is particularly pronounced among non-citizens who have fewer constitutional protections than citizens.

Trenton, N.J.: Do you think the “Hatred of America” paranoia, embodied in Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) comments on C-SPAN yesterday morning, is a root cause of media-driven arrests, fishing-expedition investigations, mystery alerts, and Keystone Kops politicking that has pockmarked the American landscape since 9-11?

Michael Ratner: I saw Wilson’s accusation that Cong. Filner hated America because he, Filner, brought up the uncomfortable fact that in the Iran-Iraq war the US not only looked the other way when Iraq used chemical weapons but supplied him with some of the components for those weapons. Wilson’s equation that criticism of the US is equal to “hating America” is truly dangerous. Our democracy thrives on open and unfettered dissent and opinion. Labeling critics as haters of America is un-American and cuts at the foundation of our democracy–particularly when said by a member of Congress. And yes, Wilson’s mentality leads exactly to the FBI etc. going after those who dissent–let there be no doubt we are in serious trouble with views like Wilson’s.

Laurel, Md.: In this age of affirmative action, many people believe that discrimination is OK as long as white males are in the most discriminated-against category.

Has sensitivity over “racial profiling” turned into “gender profiling”, making it legitimate to treat all males as part of the most suspect groups for extra scrutiny (as at airports) as long as those of Middle Eastern appearance aren’t made the primary targets?

Michael Ratner: I see plenty of women undergoing extra screening at airports. One reason, among others, you don’t want to have profiled screening and need random screening is that terrorists can change their profile. 9/11 was non-citizens and mostly Saudis; next time–and hopefully that next time will not occur–it could be citizens and women. Note in this regard that some suicide bombers in Israel are now women. My office is against profiling for constitutional reasons as well and is currently litigating a racial profiling case against the New York City police department.

Cumberland, Md.: Would you agree with the assertion that the U.S. Constitution is not a suicide pact and that some lawyers and judges are rapidly turning it into a suicide pact by demanding that the Justice Department hold open hearings which ultimately let terrorist know the patterns of our investigations?

Michael Ratner: Clearly it is not a suicide pact. But it did not create a police state either. Right now the govt.–Ashcroft in particular–wants the constitution to be whatever he says–he does not want court review. Checks and balances are the essence of our system. All the court did was say that Ashcroft’s blanket rule that all immigration hearings should be closed was wrong. Individual hearings can still be closed if the govt makes a case. This seems sensible. As the judge in the 6th circuit said: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I’ve read that there are Americans, an others, in jail without benefit of counsel or friendly human contact. Is this true? Did habeas corpus get suspended again? If so, is the country at civil war again or is the threat to our nation much less urgent than the removal of our civil liberties would justify? What happened–did Dick Nixon sneak back into the White House? Thanks much.

Michael Ratner: Yes, there are many in jail without benefit of counsel. Padilla and Hamdi are 2 US citizens whom the govt is refusing to allow to see counsel. They are held in a military brig. Non-citizens held in Guantanamo have no access to counsel or family. They are not even being told that a lawsuit was filed on their behalf. Think how dangerous–the govt can jail whom it pleases with no court review and no lawyer for the jailed.

Washington, D.C.: Are you going to be participating this Sunday afternoon in the march against the coming War with Iraq? Regardless, how do you think the general public, if they were made aware by the media, would react to this hopefully nonviolent and IMF-protester-less demonstration against the war?

Michael Ratner: I am saddened by the way many on our country have gone along with a war to remove the govt of Iraq. I think this makes it more dangerous for us living in the US. Inspections are one thing; war quite another. We must get to our congressmen and tell them not to go to war. The Democrats have been appalling on this issue–Gore finally said something that I support–the war will deflect us from the war on terrorism.

Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that the administration will become even bolder with limiting our civil liberties and utilizing the Patriot Act if (when) we become involved in a war with Iraq? If so, will this wake up more of the citizens and give a kick in the pants to dissenting voices in Congress?

Michael Ratner: The sad part is that govt is given great deference in a war. Can the civil liberties situation get worse–yes. In a war, even those opposed–particularly politicians–support the war at that point. I think the only way we will make gains on civil liberties is if we feel safer as Americans. We will not feel safer if we using our military against Iraq and around the world. We will create a climate for more terrorism.

Harrisburg, Pa.: It is important that we preserve our Constitutional rights, even in trying times, because mistakes can be made and innocent people can be detained. An unrestrained government might take advantage of their powers and abuse them. How should we create that balance between preserving rights and allowing government to act quickly when dealing with preventing terrorism?

Michael Ratner: I do not think that people should be detained with no charges, no lawyers and no access to courts. So far the deprivations of liberty are primarily aimed at non-citizens and therefore citizens have not really paid the price or been affected by the balance. I think that until a full investigation is done as to why are FBI/CIA failed us on 9/11 new powers should not be given to the agencies. They have plenty of power–they just can’t use it right.

Washington, D.C.: While most polling results being offered seem to say otherwise, there was a recent Post article indicating that a slim majority of the communication being received by Congress from citizens shows the public opposing a unilateral war on Iraq. What can we do to get the media to trumpet this instead of all the pro-war talk?

Michael Ratner: That is remarkable. I did not know that and it gives me hope–but this admiration seems absolutely bent on war. Do what you just did–send that article around–get it on e-mail–have people go to their congress.

Long Beach, Calif.: What’s your opinion of Germany sticking up for it’s new national identity of NOT wanting to start wars? I find it crazy to be knocking the Germans for being pacifistic. Do we really need Panzers on the Berlin to Baghdad route?

Michael Ratner: It is quite amazing. I guess you could say they have seen the devastation of war and want to try peaceful means to solve the problem. I for one am pleased. It is an important break with US superpower domination. We have people in the White House who don’t seem to care about world opinion of that of its own citizens. We will only feel safer when we rejoin the world. Think about the World Court and Kyoto accord–the US is making this world less safe for my children.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you believe that the Bush Administration’s uncritical support of Sharon has increased the risk of terrorism both in the US and against US interests abroad?

Michael Ratner: Yes I do. Even if that conflict is used as an excuse by terrorists it makes it easier to find support for their cause. I think we in the US will not feel safer until that dispute is settled.

Burke, Va.: I think the news media has been horrible in keeping us informed about our loss of rights, and in response to so-called terrorist happenings. The fact that Padilla is a US citizen in the brig who has never been able to meet with a lawyer should be front page news and should be revisited often.

In addition the case of the three medical students was handled horribly. The woman who reported the guys probably did the right thing, as she thought she overheard a terrorist plot, the police seemed to over-react, but that might be understandable. What is wrong is the way the news seemed to convict the three guys before they knew what was going on.

Michael Ratner: Your comments are great. The fact that Padilla and Hamdi are in Navy brigs, have no lawyer and little court review is shocking. It shows how far we have gone along the road to a police state. What would stop Ashcroft-Rumfeld tomorrow from declaring you or me enemy combatants and putting us in a brig with no lawyer?

The question on the 3 is more difficult with regard to the woman as I do not know what she heard and we probably never will. Was it simply her ethnic profiling in a small town diner or did they say something? I agree that the media hype was outrageous–

Cumberland, Md.: This morning we read that Hadayet (the LA airport killer) was an asylum seeker who had links to terrorism (this morning’s New York Times) which had been ignored by the INS. This has prompted Attorney General John Ashcroft to order the agency last week to conduct an investigation into possible links between asylum seekers and terrorists. In view of this don’t you think that potential links with terrorists should be investigated in the cases of ALL Asylum seekers in the last decade?

Michael Ratner: This is a point that you and I most likely have some agreement. I think that before we start giving new powers to the intelligence agencies, INS etc. we ought to find out why they did not prevent 9/11. Finally and belatedly I see Bush agreed on this—at least having an investigation. INS should have had these guys—so should have the FBI. We don’t need preventive detention—we need good law enforcement, sharing of information etc. Preventive detention should scare us all–it is already being done to US citizens–who is next—you? Me?

Los Angeles, Calif.: My girlfriend is afraid the Postman will notice things like our collection of Ravi Shankar records, or our coffee table book on the Pyramids, and report it to the Justice dept. Is there any way to register with the government as a curious person with no evil intent to kill innocent babies? Just curious!

Michael Ratner: I am glad you mentioned this. The TIPS program in which Ashcroft wanted to and still wants to make informants out of your postman and meter reader is truly Big Brother and 1984. Ideas, thoughts, speech, pictures etc. can become suspect. It is shocking there is not more outrage. Luckily Congress at least stopped some of the worst aspects of
the program. There is no registration procedure–but your note confirms how bad the times are. Check by website and CCR at for more.

New Orleans, La.: I find it to be blatant pie-sharing in advance when the USA threatens France that unless they support offensive war that they will be left out of the spoils. Is this over the top blackmail or what?

Michael Ratner: Yes. I read an amazing article about how US oil companies are already negotiating with the Iraqi opposition as to the oil contracts. The presumption is that contracts with the Russians will not be honored. The US companies will be in the driver seat. We will share with those that support us. The US is redrawing the map of the world to guarantee its hegemony and oil supply for a long time to come.

Long Beach, Calif.: With Bush taking some umbrage at even oblique references to Hitler, is it now fair to assess the Bush family history of wholesale support for the German Government throughout the NS period? I for one feel that the threads of history are long, and they connect to the present day. Why support a Germany led by Hitler, and now openly view as “poisoned” a relationship with a pacifistic, free, and open German society?

Michael Ratner: Great point. Another German legislator said Bush was acting like Augustus Caesar–and I think that is right.This is no holds barred imperialism or whatever word you want to use. I think we will be less safe after this. I live in NY near the WTC and I fear the war in Iraq will bring more terror not less. There is an old proverb–“He who plunders others always lives in terror.”

Cumberland, Md.: I fail to understand the weeping and wailing over Hamdi–both attended Al Qaeda training camps and one fought alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda–does anyone in their right mind want those sort of people to ever get out jail so they can go back to their terrorists ways?

Michael Ratner: Assuming they fought alongside the Taliban that may make them people I don’t like or agree with, but it does not make them terrorists. They could be treated as POWs or charged with a crime if they have evidence of terrorism. In any case incommunicado detention of anyone, citizens or otherwise, should be anathema to all of us. The foundation of liberty is built on not permitting the executive–king–to deprive people of their liberty without a lawyer, court etc. Otherwise we have only the word of the executive–and the American revolution taught me not to trust that word.

Arlington, Va.: My husband is from Northern Ireland, and we lived there for several years. I’m very frightened about the direction the U.S. is heading, because we are simply making the exact same mistakes the British government has made in attempting to address the Troubles in Northern Ireland. People are held without charge, arrests are often solely based on anonymous tips; racial profiling is rampant, to the point where the phrase “being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time” has become commonplace. What this had led to is giving the terrorists the power to force the government to meet their demands. It has also alienated an entire generation against the British government.

Why are our legislators so blind to this?

Michael Ratner: This is a good comment. Fighting terror through extra-constitutional means does not work. Ask the British and even better ask the Israelis. Ask if an Israeli feels safer today then he did 20 years ago. Yes terrorists must be found, prosecuted and arrested–but that does not necessitate living in a police state.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Reading through your comments brought up this “thought” in my mind (and we all know how dangerous the current Administration regards that.)

We know that when the Founders created the bill of rights, they established the freedoms of speech, press, etc. as a foil to prevent the government from getting too big.

I wonder: what if the Revolutionary War occurred in 2000 instead of 1776 with mass media, the Internet and cell phones? Do you think the Founders would have added, removed, or kept the rights we have enumerated in the Constitution?

Michael Ratner: I do know that the founders feared unfettered and untrammeled executive power. They had had a taste of it from the English Kings. They wrote a constitution that would insure the executive would not have power to act alone whether to initiate war or suspend the writ of habeas corpus. I think they would have been appalled at indefinite, preventive detentions; appalled at Ashcroft’s threats against speech and shocked by the executives accretion of power.

Arlington, Va.: The way Ashcroft has been trampling our civil rights is a slap in the face to every person who has died defending our country. It makes me sick to the point where I’m thinking of moving overseas to a country where at least they don’t pretend to be free.

Michael Ratner: I do think that much of what has been done by this administration cuts against the values of our constitutional system. We all want to feel safer. But I ask myself: Why do I not feel safe when we spend $350 billion a year in defense? Maybe we are doing something wrong. As long as the Middle East is roiling, as long as we insist on military solutions to problems, as long as we bomb innocents, we will increase terrorism and feel unsafe. Only when make some fundamental changes in how we act in the world, will we again feel safe–and then people will be more willing to fight for their liberty. Right now many people give the govt the benefit of the doubt because they want to be safe. But it is an illusion. Those detainees in jails in the US do not make us safer–they were not guilty of terrorism–only an overstayed visa.

Re: Cumberland’s Hamdi Comment: That’s scary. Shouldn’t the guilt of these gentlemen be decided by a fair trial rather than by the Bush Administration?

Michael Ratner: Yes, that is the point. It is scary and may get worse with more wars. We have a war mongers in the administration and it is dangerous for all of us.

Cumberland, Md.: What is your view on the correct way to deal with fanatical Imams who at their mosques in the U.S. call for Jihad, and encourage their members to support various Islamic terrorist organizations around the world?

Michael Ratner: I do not believe that anyone should be allowed to aid terrorism. Obviously if there is suspicion that someone is doing so or encouraging others to do so and the threats are real, investigation is in order. I still believe that free speech is a hallmark of our society–encouraging someone to join a terrorist group is not encompassed by that first amendment protection.