Wheels have been turning since the first part of this interview with the Center for Constitutional Rights’ president Michael Ratner began two issues back and keeping pace with the vital events that organization is currently involved with is unthinkable in the space we have but two items cannot go unmentioned.
Last week, the CCR filed suit in Los Angeles federal court against CACI International, CACI Premier Technology and L-3 Communications Titan Corporation, private companies that have served as “dungeon masters” interrogating detainees supplied by the U.S. government.
“We believe private contractors…should not be involved in any part of fighting a war, partly because they don’t have the same kind of supervision, training or accountability and are, to me, way of avoiding (the law),” said Ratner, a part-time Olive resident with his wife Karen Ranucci, who works with the national radio show Democracy Now. Among questionable legal activities the Center is focused upon are such evasions as the use of mercenaries for activities which may be seen as lawless misconduct on the part of a government or the shifting of such actions to countries where legality is a lesser consideration.
“(P)rivate security forces have behaved brutally, with impunity,” Ratner told Jeremy Scahill, author of a book on Blackwater, a company CCR litigated against for their role in the Nisoor Square massacre in Iraq. “These kind of paramilitary groups bring to mind Nazi Party brownshirts, functioning as an extrajudicial enforcement mechanism that can and does operate outside the law….not subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees.”
Even more dramatically last week, charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the Guantanamo Six now facing the death penalty before a military tribunal were suddenly dropped without prejudice (meaning they can be reinstated at any time), removing this CCR client from the upcoming trials. One of several individuals accused by the government of being the “20th hijacker” of 9-11, al-Qahtani has been held in the Camp Delta facility at the U.S. base in Cuba since 2002, where he denied, confessed under torture, and then recanted the allegations. Records of his detention recently sought by retired general Michael Dunlavey, who had supervised Guantanamo during that year, were found to have disappeared along with their “back-ups.”
The tribunal al-Qahtani avoids is one in which, as described by the NYT in February, “Prosecutors will be able to use evidence obtained by improper means, including by torture. The rules will be stacked in the government’s favor, so hearsay evidence that would not be allowed in civilian courts may be allowed. Prosecutors may rely on classified evidence that the defendants will not be able to challenge. Defendants may not be allowed to call important witnesses (and) even if the defendants were somehow to beat the charges, they would not be set free. They would simply go back to being detainees in Guantanamo.”
“If you want to prosecute terrorists, there are plenty of criminal laws to use,” Ratner said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine. “You don’t have to make up special new laws like military commissions or holding people indefinitely.”
The tribunals are legitimized by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which former NY congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman said “countenances abuse of detainees in defiance of the Geneva Conventions and the country’s past moral values and it suspends habeas corpus in defiance of the Constitution (as well as extending the) grant of a pardon to President Bush and his top Cabinet officials for any crimes they may have committed under the War Crimes Act of 1996.”
What is momentous about the events of the past two weeks is the unknown projected effect upon the prosecution’s case against the other defendants, all of whom are said to be portrayed in the hundreds of hours of interrogation videos (24,000 interrogations) recently destroyed by the CIA in defiance of a court order. With destruction of state evidence seemingly almost routine throughout these proceedings it isn’t difficult to envision a collective collapse of the cases.
In late April, the CIA, already under fire for withholding information from Congress, responded to FOIA requests from CCR and other human rights organizations, admitting possession of over 7,000 documents related to its “extraordinary rendition” program, partly because of content including correspondence from top administration officials. At the time of our interview, Ratner was irked by what he perceived as the press having underplayed a story of high officials’ involvement in devising the torture program. The Center is expected to file a response to the CIA’s legal tactic this month.
“We just saw on ABC that Condi Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney and a few others sat around the White House dozens of times, according to the story, approving various torture techniques to use against detainees in CIA custody and the press should be screaming ‘How is this legal? Shouldn’t that subject you to prosecution? How did this administration get away with blaming lower level soldiers for what was a torture program from the highest level?” Ratner said in April, finding additional media fault in continuously giving “some people free passes on a series of lies told to us about the Iraq War” and a program of falsehoods “from politicians and the press in particular” that pushed us into a war that shouldn’t have been fought which “anyone with a modicum of intelligence knew we were having shoved down our throats.”
With 151 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, having invested $196 million in companies with Department of Defense contracts bringing in $755 million a day in 2006, over $275.6 billion according to the non-profit group OMB Watch, it’s hard to dismiss the profit motive. With names like Kerry, Sensenbrenner, Lieberman, Harkin and many others cashing in on the profits of war, (Hillary Clinton sold her stock in Raytheon, Boeing and Honeywell last year), can that factor be ignored? Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committee members, alone, have between $32 million and $44 million invested in DoD-contracted companies as they oversee the Iraqi misadventure. In what some see as an era of unabated corporate plunder, with overcharged and unfinished projects in Baghdad, there are questions as to how much of the terror war itself is a colossal swindle.
Ratner feels that Homeland Security money was an issue in the DEP’s decision to close the Ashokan’s Monument Road and it was certainly a major factor in the round-up of “suspects” sent to our tropical gulag in Cuba where only a small percentage will face trial and a vast majority of those freed thusfar were released without charges. (Others were sent to secret trials in Afghanistan which make the tribunals look civil in comparison.)
“The way it worked was, when the Afghan War began, they dropped leaflets all over saying ‘Your family will be rich…You’ll never have to work again’ (if you turn in a ‘terrorist’),” Ratner said of the 86% of detainees who were brought in when large bounties were offered. “The average award was maybe $5,000 in a situation where warlords are running all over, deciding to turn in opponents or people they didn’t like…or bad neighbors needing money – that’s a lot of the people. In fact, I just did a panel with the German attorney for (Murat Kumaz) who just got out and wrote a book (Guantanamo: Five Years An Innocent Man) and he was taken off a bus in Pakistan and the warlord was paid $3,000.”
A typical prisoner, interviewed for an article on routine torture in Afghani prisons by the British newspaper The Guardian, related: “At the end of my time in Guantanamo, I had to sign a paper saying I had been captured in battle, which was not true…I was stopped when I was in my taxi with four passengers. But they told me I would have to spend the rest of my life in Guantanamo if I did not sign it, so I did.” While, in the eyes of some observers, such captures have helped justify swelling terror war expenditures and the rising profit margins of recession-proof techno-security companies sopping up an increasing percentage of the federal budget, others see them as overwhelming cause to rethink current policy.
“The fact that torture is a subject of debate in this country right now; the fact that it isn’t slammed by the press on a daily basis – that the press doesn’t say ‘When are we going to have accountability,’ whether through Congress or the courts, and stop it? That these aren’t questions at every press conference, I find shocking,” Ratner said, vowing to seek accountability for evil-doers in office through “universal jurisdiction” cases which can prosecute torturers almost anywhere in the world.
Ratner’s CCR has led the legal battles against the alleged abuses at Guantanamo for 6 years, sending the first habeas attorney there and organizing the largest coalition of pro-bono lawyers on record to defend rights they see as essential to a free nation. His Center was also in the forefront of the international initiative to arrest the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and active in numerous arrests and convictions of European and African leaders accused of similar crimes against humanity. They have contributed to the arrest warrants, under international law, of certain officials who have left the current administration, for instance Donald Rumsfeld, who had to flee France last October to avoid a warrant for his arrest for war crimes.
The object, as CCR sees it, is a restoration of justice in the American system of justice and the opposition, as they view it, is a shadow government that operates in secrecy to criminally pursue goals they serially misrepresent to the public. The Center’s own leader, Michael Ratner, dreams of upstate trees and mountains, saying, “Since I’ve been coming to Olive for 35 years, going back into those woods is always with me, wherever I am in the world. That’s the place I love most.”
But duty calls.