Michael Ratner is in a cavernous college hall speaking to hundreds of students one recent evening. He’s hyped. He’s talking fast. The crusader at the lectern.
This is what he loves to do: sound the alarm about government abuses. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years, and Sept. 11, 2001, launched a new era for legal activism. So he’s doing the “our-civil-liberties-are-endangered” speech, about rights trammeled, laws grown draconian and Muslims under siege.
The Islamic Society of Rutgers University is his host. They are all courageous even for showing up, Ratner is telling them, considering that “there are people in this room who are going to report this meeting to the FBI.”
But Ratner has overlooked a fine detail. By the end of his talk, when he’s surrounded by students eager to hear more from this famous international human rights lawyer, he reaches into his bag, pulls out a beige baseball cap and plops it on his balding head.
“I forgot to wear this earlier,” he says jovially and beams a goofy smile.
“Guantanamo Bay Bar Association,” the cap says. And if such an association actually existed, Ratner would be its dean.
Three U.S. presidents have authorized the detention of foreigners at Guantanamo. And Ratner has fought them all — first, back in the early 1990s, when Haitian immigrants were held there, and now, during the “war on terror,” when hundreds of Arab Muslims are detained in utter isolation, with no legal rights, a controversy that the U.S. Supreme Court is now considering.
Ratner isn’t alone in his Guantanamo battles. The cap came from a fellow lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, who is representing Capt. James Yee, a Muslim U.S. military chaplain at Guantanamo who was smeared with an allegation of espionage but later charged with lesser offenses not related to terror. Fidell says wryly in a brief telephone interview that there’ll be a band of lawyers working Guantanamo cases “for the foreseeable future.” So he printed up a couple of dozen caps recently and gave one to Ratner, a lawyer whom Fidell simply calls “brilliant.”
With his rumpled khakis and rubber-soled shoes, Ratner wore his cap at Rutgers like a badge of honor.
“It’s the smallest bar association in the world,” he said, delighted by the gag.
The Lawyers’ Crusade
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is abuzz. In its offices on lower Broadway in Manhattan, lawyers with papers piled high on the floor and spilling from their desks are writing briefs and interrogatories and holding revolving-door strategy meetings with Ratner, the center’s president.
Ratner is the kind of far-left lawyer sometimes dismissed as a fringe character. Some, especially the Bush administration, see him as a nuisance. And he’s had his share of threatening e-mails from people calling him a traitor for doing what he does.
But Ratner is a true believer, a staunch defender of human rights. He and his wife, Karen Ranucci, are of like minds. She works for the Pacifica Radio show Democracy Now.
A lecturer at Columbia University’s law school and author of a textbook on international human rights, Ratner hails from the tradition of brash activist lawyering typified by the late Arthur Kinoy, one of CCR’s founders, in 1966. A defender of the Chicago Seven, Kinoy successfully used the courts to fight Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s ouster from the U.S. Congress, and to overturn President Richard Nixon’s power to order political wiretaps. And Ratner has a bit of Kinoy’s longtime partner, William Kunstler, in him too. Ratner worked with both men, as well as Morton Stavis, another CCR founder. “Giants,” he calls them all.
“Kunstler once told me, ‘Michael, all governments are bad, but some are worse than others.’ ” From these men, especially Kinoy, to whom he feels the most intellectual affinity, Ratner learned the art of the high-impact lawsuit. He learned to use litigation as a crusade — both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.
And for Ratner, the crusade “means pushing them [the government] back and back from what they’re trying to do.”
His Father’s Son
Ratner has been personally involved in some of the high-profile international human rights cases of our times. He wrote a textbook on the famed case of Joel Filartiga, a Paraguayan who won a 1984 judgment in U.S. courts against the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner for his son’s murder. That CCR case broke ground for foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for alleged human rights abuses under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which now is used frequently and controversially (and also is being reviewed by the Supreme Court.)
Ratner has fought legal battles against the Chilean government over the murder of Charles Horman, a U.S. citizen whose death during dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime was the basis of the movie Missing. And he battled U.S. support in the 1980s for the Nicaraguan contras in his vain legal quest to lay blame for the execution-style murder of Benjamin Linder, a U.S. engineer allegedly targeted by the contras.
Ratner sued the first Bush administration to stop the Gulf War. He sued the Clinton administration to stop the bombing of Kosovo. And he successfully sued on behalf of victims of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes.
In other words, he’s often fought for the “little guys,” for victims. In that, the influence of his father is clear, Ratner says.
A Polish immigrant to Cleveland in the 1920s, Harry Ratner started a successful real estate business with his brothers. They were men of means, raising families in affluence.
But Harry Ratner, the son recalls, always reached out to the less fortunate.
The father fed ex-cons at the family dinner table. He believed in giving second chances. Harry Ratner helped resettle refugees in the United States after the Second World War, too, and raised money to help families burned out of their homes.
At first, Michael Ratner wanted to be an archeologist. But seeing how his father “helped the little guy and did it anonymously” had a huge impact.
Then came 1968, that pivotal year when he was a law student and worked on a school desegregation case in “the South” (Prince George’s County) for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and watched Army tanks thunder through Baltimore, where he was staying, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Then he returned to Columbia University in time to get beaten up by police during student protests there.
His life was changed. After his father’s death, the family business beckoned, but Ratner decided he wanted “to spend my life doing something really socially committed.”
But representing suspected terrorists? It wasn’t what Ratner had in mind.
The Unseen Clients
When the latest round of Guantanamo Bay cases presented themselves, Ratner hesitated.
He, like so many others, was deeply traumatized by Sept. 11. He was jogging near the World Trade Center that morning, and had to run for his life. He lives downtown, works downtown and has two teenage children attending school there. He can speak in graphic detail about the funereal existence that enveloped Lower Manhattan for weeks after the attacks.
And the guys at Guantanamo could have been connected to the guys who did it. So Ratner, at first, didn’t want to be in a position of criminally defending them; only of defending the principle of their rights. That was the line he initially drew.
“I first said we’re just upset over them not having a hearing and we’re very upset over the death penalty and the military tribunals. I’ll do only that. I won’t do the criminal cases, because maybe these are bad guys.”
But over time, as the detentions dragged on with no charges filed and as it began to seem, to Ratner, “an entirely coercive situation” at Guantanamo, he lost his sense of hesitation.
Still, he wonders about his clients. He’s never been allowed to meet them or call them or write them. Lawyers have been barred from Guantanamo for two years — until this month, when a lawyer was allowed in. Because most of the detainees were arrested in Afghanistan during the U.S. fight with the Taliban regime and the al Qaeda terror network, Ratner is assuming he’s probably not of like minds with his clients.
“I’m representing people who I may not agree with politically,” he says. “Aside from that, I’m Jewish.” He laughs a bit nervously, for it’s an awkward thing to discuss — the possibility that his Muslim clients won’t appreciate having a Jewish lawyer.
“I can’t say it’s the easiest thing in the world,” he says with a shrug.
But it’s the principle he’s after. The stakes, he says, are these:
“Can the United States pick up people anywhere in the world, take them to an offshore prison camp and not have any hearings at all and keep them forever and basically wipe out court review of those cases? That’s really significant. Are we going to be a state that’s ruled by law and by checks and balances and the Constitution and human rights?”
Is the Pressure Working?
Ratner is hoping to force the answers through the cases the CCR is representing.
The CCR’s case on behalf of four Guantanamo detainees will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Rasul v. Bush, Ratner’s team has sued the administration for imprisoning the foreigners as “war-on-terror” detainees without access to lawyers, the courts or their families. A second suit, Odah v. U.S., filed on behalf of 12 detainees by the D.C. law firm of Shearman and Sterling, has been combined with the CCR case.
The suit will have an impact on the 660 detainees who have been held in isolation and interrogated at Guantanamo’s infamous Camp Delta, formerly known as Camp X-Ray, though none has been charged for a link to global terror.
From his travels there in the early 1990s, Ratner knows Gitmo all too well. He knows the scorpions and the “banana rats” and the searing heat. He knows, too, how intently U.S. governments have fought — whether under Clinton or the Bushes — to prevent the protections of the Constitution from passing through Guantanamo’s gates. In the early 1990s the United States held HIV-positive Haitians in virtual quarantine there.
President George H.W. Bush wouldn’t free them, nor would President Bill Clinton — a fact that still irks Ratner. “Well, Clinton was a total sellout,” he says. Ratner represented the Haitians, who were seeking political asylum, and won a court order for their admission into the United States as refugees.
Though the Rasul case is pending, Ratner believes it already has borne fruit. Shortly after the Supreme Court announced its acceptance of the case, the Bush administration announced that 140 of the prisoners would be released. Then it announced that one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Australian Muslim David Hicks, would become the first Guantanamo detainee to be granted legal representation.
Around the same time, the administration announced that Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen dubbed an “enemy combatant” and held in prison, would also have access to a lawyer. The Supreme Court is considering whether to accept the Hamdi case for review as well. (In that case, the CCR has friend-of-the-court status.)
These developments, Ratner believes, are intended to neutralize the lawsuits. It is the administration’s way “of telling the court: We can be trusted as a government and that you don’t have to look at these cases,” he says.
In another “enemy combatant” case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled yesterday that the Bush administration had no authority to circumvent normal procedures when it imprisoned U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, the dirty bomb suspect, in a naval brig. The court ordered Padilla released or charged with a crime in the normal criminal justice system. (CCR wrote an amicus brief in that case too.)
In another detention case, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, Ratner’s CCR has sued on behalf of the thousands of immigrants rounded up in anti-terror dragnets after Sept. 11 and allegedly mistreated in jails inside the United States where they were held, in some cases, for months.
The allegations of abuse were buttressed, in part, by the Justice Department’s own inspector general, which yesterday cited a pattern of verbal and physical abuse of some detainees.
The CCR also plans to file another lawsuit early next year on behalf of Maher Arar. He is the Syrian-born Canadian detained by U.S. officials in New York, then covertly shipped off to Syria through a U.S. policy of “rendition.” Arar claims he was tortured for several months in Syria, and the CCR claims that U.S. officials may have sent Arar to Syria for that very reason.
The Mock Indictment
And then, there is this: “People v. Ashcroft.”
It’s not a real case, just a mock indictment put on the Web by CCR, calling for Attorney General John Ashcroft’s removal for violating the Constitution.
Every crusader needs a nemesis, and for Ratner and the CCR it is this attorney general.
“Ashcroft crystallizes for me what this administration does wrong,” Ratner says. “What Ashcroft has done is essentially take the courts out of our system of government, in not having reviews of immigration cases, not having reviews of people that are jailed. and . . . allowing Americans to be surveilled by the FBI and to have our privacy really invaded in terms of our political speech, our religious affiliation, and he’s done that without any criminal predicate.”
In other words, a crime need not be thought in the offing for someone to be wiretapped or put under other surveillance. A provision of the USA Patriot Act says the FBI can get a warrant to secretly search or wiretap someone based simply on the need to gather intelligence. And that wider power, Ratner believes, leaves plenty of room for abuse.
But it’s also personal, as if Ashcroft has presided over the rollback of the life’s work of Ratner and other civil liberties lawyers. With new allegations that the FBI is collecting information on antiwar activists, Rather fears there could be a return to the kinds of abuses he fought in the 1980s, when the CCR and others uncovered widespread FBI spy operations against Central American activists.
“Here’s why I’m so angry at Ashcroft,” he says, his tone one of exasperation.
Speaking of the new Patriot Act provisions, he continues: “I found it remarkable that he could say that the FBI could do that after what we’d gone through. . . . When we had [congressional] hearings on all this stuff and we again pushed the FBI back up against the wall — which is what we try to do — and then all of a sudden Ashcroft says we [the nation] have learned nothing from the past. It’s happening all over again,” Ratner says. With a deadpan he adds, “And what it shows more than anything? You can never sit back and go play golf in Florida. You don’t know [if] it’s going to happen again and again.”
A list of questions sent to Ashcroft for this article were not presented to him. “We wouldn’t respond to Mr. Ratner’s rather inane rantings,” says Ashcroft’s chief spokesman Mark Corallo. “Obviously he has not read the laws passed by Congress nor followed our successes in the federal courts. It is obvious that the law and the courts are on the side of this administration and the Justice Department.”
Critics see Ratner and his CCR as virtually paranoid.
“I do think that groups like CCR have overreacted and they see more of a threat than exists,” says Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who debated Ratner last month on C-SPAN. “They have an apocalyptic vision of government, which is usually overly sensitive. But that doesn’t mean they’re always wrong, and the truth is that government does overreach.”
CCR undercuts its own credibility with campaigns such as the “indictment” against Ashcroft, says Rosenzweig, who called it a “triviality.”
“They’re more focused on winning in the court of public opinion as opposed to the courtroom,” Rosenzweig says. “I don’t think you can do both.”
But it does not bother Ratner that critics dismiss CCR’s tactics. He’s accustomed to his battles being long and hard. That, in a way, is the beauty of it.
“What I find happens in a lot of this work we do is that you start things that look quixotic in the beginning, but in the end you turn out to be right. Look at the Guantanamo cases. We took those the January after the 9/11 attacks, and now [in amicus briefs] we’re getting generals and former POWs and law firms crawling out of the woodwork to be on those cases with us.”