It was the area code and prefix that set him off, and you could sense his eyes glazing for an instant as he spoke.
“Whenever I hear the 657 phone code, I get excited because it reminds me of how much I want to go up there and walk in the woods,” laughed attorney Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). “My entire fantasy these days is to try to figure out how to get up there so I can take a walk up South Hollow Road and look at the water going by.”
Having rented a house in Olive while still in law school in 1970, Ratner became so attached to the area that he later bought a home in West Shokan so that he would always have that connection to return to.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t really get there at all this winter,” he said. “And right now I’m trying to think of a way to get there tomorrow.”
Ratner has been too busy in his role as a legal Lancelot on the frontline of courtroom decisions that are redefining the concept of freedom in America – tightly focused on the survival of habeas corpus and the fate of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.
Founded during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s by famed attorneys Arthur Kinoy, William Kunstler, Morton Stavis and Benjamin Smith, the CCR gained renewed notice in 2002 with Ratner’s decision to challenge civil liberties abridgments imposed following the 9/11 attacks.
“I would say our biggest success, so far, was making ‘Guantanamo Bay’ a household word but, even more, in getting attorneys there to protect people from torture and then helping release hundreds of the innocent,” Ratner reflected. “Clearly, winning the first big case in the 2004 Supreme Court decision for Rasul v. Bush, giving habeas corpus rights, or the right to petition detention to the prisoners of Guantanamo was vital.”
The Habeas corpus writ is a concept dating back to the Magna Carta in 1215 A.D., ratified in Britain in 1689 and included as a key provision of the U.S. Constitution. Basically, it guarantees the right to a fair trial to anyone accused of a crime. It was considered “The fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.” But when Congress granted AUMF (Authorization to Use Military Force) to the Executive branch of government in September, 2001, the administration expanded it to include anyone the President decided was an “International Terrorist.” This was a first step, in Ratner’s view, in the circumvention of Constitutional rights.
“In the United States, there were 93,000 people who were picked up immediately afterwards, who were undocumented workers, not one terrorist,” Ratner recalled. “These were special registration people for young men between the ages of 18 to 35 from certain Muslim countries and people the FBI wanted to look at.
“”Then there’s the Guantanamo Bay category, which is roughly 750. Five hundred have been released and we think the high majority of those left there will also be released,” the former NLG (National Lawyers Guild) President continued. “That’s not the so-called ‘high value detainees,’ of which there are 14 and I’m not willing to say very much about that. Not in the sense that I don’t know but in the sense that most of what the government has to say turns out not to be the case. Rumsfeld calls them ‘the worst of the worst’ – people who are going to chew through hydraulic cords, bring down airplanes, that want to kill us and it turns out that this was not the case at all. So, my feeling about what the government puts forward, either publicly or in secret evidence, is that I’m highly, highly skeptical.”
Rooting his doubts in the CCR’s experiences in cases already handled, Ratner sounds fairly optimistic about the defense even if, at first glance, most of the chips seem be on the government’s side of the table. The scorecard, however, seems to indicate otherwise. Even though OCR’s client, the first `Gitmo’ detainee granted legal representation, David Hicks, entered a plea bargain last year which allowed him to return to his native Australia, the New York Times noted that he “was bargaining in the shadow of many things-the conditions at the base, international diplomacy, homesickness and the possibility of indefinite detention without charge. But he was not, for the most part, bargaining in the shadow of the law…The statute under which he was to be tried was brand new and untested. The relevant regulations are as yet largely unwritten. ”
“They’ve never had a successful prosecution from beginning to end. Not one,” observed Ratner of the Gitmo slate. “The only case they had, a client I represented for a while – David Hicks – pled guilty (as “enemy combatant”), got 9 months in jail and is out. Every other time the government has been faced with a real hearing, where they have to come up with actual evidence, they responded by releasing the prisoners. And then you add torture and we know that victims and survivors of torture really do say what their interrogators want to hear.”
Ratner points to the 2006 analysis of Defense Department files on 517 Guantanamo detainees by Professor Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall University, which found that the majority of detainees had committed no hostile acts against the U.S. and, in fact, only 5% of them had been captured by U.S. forces while 86% had been turned over for the $4,000 or $5,000 bounties offered, no questions asked, and notes that the government’s use of money has been a major issue.
“Their claim with regard to at least some of the so-called ‘secret detainees’ who are in some of those black sites and through whom they claim to have been able to solve some plots, I don’t have it in front of me but a lot of that is essentially ‘made from whole cloth’,” Ratner charged. “To the extent that we’ve been able to dependably corroborate whether those plots even existed or whether the torture resulted in any apprehensions, we’ve been able to demonstrate that they haven’t gotten very much of anything from torture.”
With such an enormous percentage of the national budget geared to the terror threat and the techno-security companies favored by the administration, this is a disturbing claim. Over last weekend we saw an example of how the “new justice system” flexed its muscle as “Operation Sudden Impact” coordinated a three-state task force encompassing federal, state and local agencies in an “anti-terror, anti-crime” operation in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Although no actual terrorists were discovered, 332 arrests were made and 1,292 traffic violations issued in Memphis alone. But, more importantly, it was the first known exercise of the NIMS (National Incident Management System) equipment issued to towns around the country from FEMA funds to interconnect federal, state and local authorities.
As reported here in December, 2006, the Olive .Police Department received a $25,000 grant, secured from the state budget by Senator Bonacic, to enable them to participate in the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program under Director of New York’s Homeland Security Office, Brigadier General F. David Sheppard…when the call comes.
Additionally, as a New York municipality, Olive will have the benefit of plugging into a federally-funded database called Matrix (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) owned by Seisint, Inc., a private security company associated with former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, to protect it by sharing data like voter registrations, civil court records, history of address changes, etc. instantly between the agencies. New York is only one of 7 states in the nation to have signed on to the program so far, the others being Florida, Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah. States which have rejected the system, for reasons of long-term costs or privacy concerns, include California, Texas, Oregon, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.
A writ of habeas corpus stands as the most important item to the 332 people arrested in the sweep, even if they aren’t accused of terrorism. But Ratner’s 2004 habeas corpus victory, which the New York Times hailed as “the most important civil rights victory in 50 years” was short lived and the battle continues even as his Center defends one of the “high-value detainees” against a death penalty charge issued in February.
“What we got out of the June 2004 decision was the ability to send attorneys to Guantanamo and we now have a group of some 600 attorneys, not just from civil rights groups but mostly from big law firms, who are representing the Guantanamo detainees,” said Ratner, sounding like he was quoting from a John Grisham novel. “As a result of that, we were able to stop the torture at least there and put pressure on various countries and the government to get people out. So, that success opened a huge door for us.
“At the same time, Congress passed a law stripping habeas from them and it went to the Supreme Court again in 2006,” he noted. “The Court said it wasn’t done right and Congress did it again, supposedly right, and that’s the case still pending, which will be decided in about a month. So, it’s Sisyphus-like; the third time we’re been there but in the interim we’ve at least been able to protect people from the worse aspects of torture and help get people out.”
In an exclusive April interview, which concludes in our next issue, Michael Ratner (whose book with Ellen Ray, Guantanamo: What the World Should Know is available in paperback) also shares his views on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed & the closing of Monument Road in Olive; the shocking behavior of the mainstream press on issues of urgent concern; the use of private corporations in foreign conflicts and domestic intelligence gathering; how the use of huge bounties led to a flood of false arrests and why the Center for Constitutional Rights will continue its pursuit of European indictments of Donald Rumsfeld and other former key administration officials for war crimes, adding President Bush and Vice-President Cheney to the list as soon as they leave office.