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The 200k Challenge Live Webcast

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. This is the First Annual Real News Webathon. And if you want to ask our guest Michael Ratner, who’s about to join us–. He’s the president for the Center for Constitutional Rights, in my mind, one of the people who’s absolutely on the forefront of fighting for our rights and is one of the people–. I interview a lot of people. There’s not too many people I publicly go on about how much I admire. Well, this is one of the people. And he’s also, I’m happy to say, on the board of The Real News Network. And if you want to ask Michael Ratner a question, please either email questions (at) therealnews (dot) com or you phone this number: 888-816-8867. One more time: 888-816-8867. And now joining us is Michael Ratner. Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So let’s just start and talk a little bit about the WikiLeaks stuff off the top, and then we’ll get into some other issues. In terms of people’s constitutional rights, in terms of freedom of speech and the importance the Internet plays in the freedom to disseminate information, on the other hand, much of the core of the Internet is privately owned. And when you have a situation where Senator Lieberman can lean on an Amazon and either scare them enough or whatever and they pull WikiLeaks off Amazon, that’s obviously a great threat to the free distribution of information. On the other hand, you have something like a PBS that gets a lot of government funding, is nonprofit, and also lives in fear of losing its government funding. So government intervention isn’t necessarily–or public ownership or nonprofit’s not a guarantee of free dissemination of information. So how do you resolve all this so that constitutional rights are defended?

RATNER: Well, I think the biggest thing for me that’s happened around this recent issue with MasterCard, PayPal, etc., and WikiLeaks, and Amazon is the understanding that what we think of as this big superhighway around the world on the Internet is actually a superhighway that can be blocked almost at any moment. And if there’s one lesson we ought to see here, it’s remarkable how governments can really push around the private actors who are in the Internet and the so-called Net neutrality, non-censorship and all is relatively meaningless. I mean, what they’ve done here is they’ve–MasterCard cut itself off. And, you know, here you can go and–by MasterCard, I can give money to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, but I can’t give to WikiLeaks anymore. Amazon, same way: you can order all kinds of stuff on Amazon that is–certainly would be considered illegal in many countries, from various types of pornography to any kinds of books on anything, and yet you can’t use Amazon any longer or WikiLeaks can’t use it any longer. So we’ve seen–I mean, we’re at a really–Paul, we’re at a critical historical juncture. I think, you know, there’s going to be before WikiLeaks and there’s going to be after, and it’s going to be a big question on my mind how this comes out, because obviously the tendency of governments, which, when you mentioned Lieberman saying, you know, essentially, get this guy on terrorism, get him on espionage, get him on anything, and throws in even the The New York Times, although that’s going to be their problem, you realize the power of governments and the struggle of the listeners to this station, to this network, which is going to be really important to try and keep some kind of Internet freedom. It’s going to be a big one, because there’s going to be real efforts to close it down. I think it’s going to be hard. I mean, I think the recent example where there’s some 1,500 supposed hackers out there who can go on after the sites that have tried to shut down WikiLeaks is an indication that as good as the technology is that the government has, there’s people out there that are always, it seems, a step ahead of the government.

JAY: I mean, one of the problems I think–. We did a panel earlier, and a couple of panelists talked about the resilience of the Internet and how you can always find some way to get something out. The problem is how marginalized that something could be. If you can shut off all the superhighway entrances that have some access to a mass audience, that have something of scale, like PayPal, for example, even if you’re just talking about the financing, if you lose Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal, I’m not exactly sure what the next step is in terms of how you get funded.

RATNER: Yeah, no, Paul, I think it’s serious. I mean, you know, and even what they did to WikiLeaks, even though Wiki has, you know, a site in Switzerland right now, you know, when I go on and try and get it under the site, what I need to get is actually the IP number to get onto it. And so that takes two or three steps. It’s not the same as–getting it as it was before. And, of course, the payment system, donation system is crucial. So what we’re seeing is, really, how vulnerable what we thought was a way of actually gaining a voice out there in the world, gaining a voice over media, over the major media, over the conservative media, over the chicken media. We thought we were gaining a position, and we certainly have been, and The Real News is a testament to that, but you also see how vulnerable it is. Think if they decided tomorrow, if you decided–I don’t know, let’s say you interview somebody, whether it’s Julian Assange or somebody else, or you start posting a bunch of cables on Real News, and what happens to your donation button?

JAY: Well, we’re going to–I mean, it’s a good example. Like, we did–when I was in the Middle East, I did an interview with Hamas and another one with Hezbollah. We’ve aired the Hamas one, but we’re–sometime in the next couple of weeks we’ll air the Hezbollah interview. I can imagine under the current situation they’re going to say, well, just by interviewing these people, somehow you’re facilitating terrorism. And if they don’t want to come after us legally, you know, they–you know, you lean on, you know, however we get paid and such. So in terms of people trying to fight for the constitutional room to do all of this, what–well, first of all, what’s your center going to be doing? What do you think people should be doing?

RATNER: Well, you know, we’re in a very–I mean, we should have maybe seen some of this coming. But we–I mean, we obviously saw it coming with the issue of so-called materially aiding terrorism and the ability of the United States to label groups that aren’t what many people would define as terrorists as terrorists, and therefore cut off, really, any contact, any even teaching–you know, in the case we brought, trying to teach human rights to the Tamil Tigers was considered illegal by the Supreme Court. So you’re talking about, first of all, apart from the Internet, just this ability of the United States government, and obviously other governments, to try and prohibit certain kinds of collaboration, contact, etc., with people and governments and organizations that they claim are terrorist. And then–so one thing we’re doing is obviously we’re fighting that law tremendously. We’re just at the verge–and I speak for the Center, and I think all of us, including the people who were on your show, on the Internet, we’re just at the verge of seeing what a serious problem we have. You know, most people out there, me included, you hear the words Internet neutrality, you hear all this, they can cut it off, you hear all this. It didn’t have a lot of meaning to me honestly Paul, until I saw what they were able to do with WikiLeaks. And here you see WikiLeaks, which has probably some of the most sophisticated programmers and others out there in the world, and yet it’s still being bounced all over the place, not only in terms of where its website can go, but obviously because it’s using major means that are privately controlled and that, like any privately controlled corporation, they bow very quickly. I mean, the threat to Amazon, you have to understand, was not just a threat about Amazon, we’re going to prosecute Amazon, or anything like that. It was basically saying, you’ve got government contracts. You want those government contracts? Do you like that money? You’d better do something. I mean, I’m being–it’s my own words, but that’s basically what was said in this sort of–

JAY: Well, it’s very, very similar to the kind of phone calls that Hollywood studios got from the House of Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s.

RATNER: You know, Paul, you have to compare this to the ’50s, ’cause when you look at it, it’s a very good point you’re making. I mean you look at first what they’ve done to Wiki and Julian Assange. They’ve called him every single name in the book. They’ve tried to shun him. They called him a–some people have even said he should be killed or assassinated. Then they’ve gone after him, you know, legally now. And so it’s every step they’ve tried to isolate him. Then there–the propaganda, certainly, in the United States is that people are being, you know, essentially harmed or killed because of what he’s done. Of course, really there’s no evidence of that.

JAY: I mean, before, any time they didn’t like something, you were a communist. Now you’re a terrorist. So they’ve been calling Julian a terrorist as well.

RATNER: Exactly. So you have to–I mean, they’re really doing a job now. And it’s interesting. I think that certainly in this country, WikiLeaks has a lot more support, certainly, than the rest of the world does. But in this country, even in this country, there’s a lot more support than there was for the communists when they were able to isolate the communists in the ’50s. So there’s a bigger base. And they’re running into a buzzsaw, but they’re really trying hard. And one of the things that I can’t get over about the WikiLeaks stuff is how are they able to divide WikiLeaks from The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and El Pais? Both of them–well, not both, but one on one hand, Wiki, and the others on the other hand, the newspapers, are not doing anything different from each other. They’re publishing these cables and analyzing the cables, particularly in the case of the newspapers. How are they going after Julian Assange and WikiLeaks on the one hand and not the editors of The New York Times, the editors of The Guardian, the editors of El Pais? And, you know, the explanation is maybe they’re too big of targets for them. But it’s really that those newspapers have–up until WikiLeaks, have essentially, you know, not shaken the status quo [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah, they’re relatively trusted gatekeepers of information.

RATNER: I’m sorry, Paul.

JAY: I said they’re relatively trusted gatekeepers of information. Even though if there are sometimes contradictions and opposition, they still stay within a realm that’s considered safe. And this WikiLeaks stuff has crossed those boundaries.

RATNER: That’s a good shorthand. That’s exactly right. And that’s why you’re seeing that. I mean, what we’re seeing here, you know, is upending all the assumptions about journalism, about newscasting, about secrecy, and just, you know, laying out for the world the lies that have gotten us into war, the way we’re fighting wars. Really, it’s the lies, really, that have made up, and that made up, really, the imperialism of a particular country I happen to live in, the United States.

JAY: Alright. We’re going to take a call now. We have Jeffrey from Wilmington on the line. Jeffrey, go ahead.

JEFFREY: Hi, Jay. I was wondering if an average citizen can create a bill and pose it to Congress, such as one to make elections publicly funded, and how they would go about making that a reality.

JAY: Okay, I’ll ask Michael. Michael, did you hear the question?

RATNER: Yes. The question was: how can a average citizen get legislation in Congress to require the public funding of elections?

JAY: Yeah, can you, like, directly propose a piece of legislation?

RATNER: And the answer is no, you can’t do it. The only way to do it is get your member of Congress or your senator–in this case it’s a revenue bill, so it originates in the House. But you’d have to get your congressman to put a piece of legislation in that has public funding, and then get it out of a committee, get it through 18 different hurdles, then get it to the floor, then get it to the vote, then get it over to the Senate, and then get the President. So the answer is there’s no shortcut. The only way that’s going to happen is by huge number of activists not only lobbying their congressmen, but taking to the streets, taking to the airwaves, and demanding that we have public funding of our elections. Clearly we’re going in the opposite direction right now. I mean, we were going in the opposite direction before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, which is the case that allows corporations and–as well as unions, but it mostly benefits corporations, to essentially contribute masses, untold amounts of money, in favor or against candidates for office. So the Supreme Court, while it was a close decision, it was still against any kind of idea that there has to be any kind of [inaudible]

JAY: Okay. Alright. Do we have another caller waiting here? Okay. Michael, talk a little bit about some of the work that your center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, what’s sort of hot on your agenda right now.

RATNER: Well, you know, we have a–we do a variety of issues. We do some domestic stuff in New York, for example, which are just of interest because of the–you think of New York as this northern city, a liberal city, and our cases in New York are around incredible racial profiling and discrimination, one, for example, against the New York City Fire Department and the city. We have a city that’s 27 percent black, and we have a fire department that’s 3 percent black. That’s the biggest discrepancy of any major city in the United States. We’ve won that case so far. Then we have a case on stop-and-frisk. That’s when the cops come up to you and they just frisk you for no reason at all. Six hundred thousand or so stop-and-frisks in New York, almost every one of them useless, meaningless, without any basis, and, again, a huge racial disparity, way beyond what the city populations are–probably 80 percent black and Latino of those stop-and-frisks. So we do a lot of that domestic work. We do a huge amount of Guantanamo work, and we’re still doing that. Of course, that’s where we’ve had the major disappointments [inaudible] I was disappointed, [as] it was something I expected, but where you see the Obama administration really continuing the policies of the Bush administration. And those are around fundamental, core civil liberties issues. The first issue is the idea of indefinite detention. I don’t know if your listeners all know or your viewers know. That’s when you can keep a person in jail without actually charging them with a crime or without convicting them at trial. And what we’ve done at Guantanamo and what they’re proposing even now is to make that part of our law. We still have almost 200 people at Guantanamo–174–who are being kept there without ever being convicted of a crime. And so we really have an indefinite detention scheme in this country. I would have never said that that would have been part of our framework. Even after I saw Bush do it, I thought, here I am, nine years–we’re entering our tenth year of Guantanamo, and we still have these laws. And so what you have to say when a Democrat does it, as a Republican does it, it’s becoming a permanent part of our fixture So part of our work, still, at the center is Guantanamo and trying to resettle some of those people in Europe, a job the US should be doing. But we have a lawyer in Europe who just does nothing but try and resettle people. We still have a huge, huge–. So that’s Guantanamo. And then there’s, of course, the results of what happened to people at Guantanamo, and that’s torture and accountability. And it actually–.

JAY: Michael, we have a question from a caller. Al is on the line. Go ahead, Al.

AL, CALLER: Yes. From my perspective, this is where we stand. We have a president unilaterally ordering the murder of American citizens. We have a Senate introducing revenue bills. We have election machines being rigged across the nation. Civics is no longer taught in high school. And constitutional law is an elective subject in law schools. Nobody knows the Constitution anymore, and the handful of old geezers like me who do know the Constitution because we were required to learn it in school are ignoring it. Why does any of this discussion about constitutional alternatives matter at all, especially in view of what we’ve got in the Supreme Court now?

JAY: Michael, you want to take that on?

RATNER: Yeah, no, that’s a–you know, you’ve almost–maybe we should make you a commentator. I mean, I agree with everything you’ve said. I think the first–when you opened, particularly, I want to focus on that for a second. You opened with this question of targeted assassinations, and that was a case brought by my office (the Center for Constitutional Rights) and the ACLU. It’s the [Anwar] al-Awlaki case. And that was a case in which the Department of State or the government or the Defense Department leaked that they had targeted a Muslim cleric named al-Awlaki, who was living in Yemen and is a US citizen. They targeted him for assassination without any indictment, without anything. We went to court, and in an 85-page opinion we lost the case yesterday. I mean, it wasn’t like I expected to win, but it was a necessary case to bring to court. And what you have now is a judge who said, look it, I understand this guy is–assuming he’s targeted, assuming he’s an American citizen, which he is, I will not interfere as a judge, because this is a political question. And what he means by that, it’s a decision made by the executive, and the court won’t interfere. I–just hold that in your head for a second what it means. It means that the President of the United States can target for death an American citizen anywhere in the world, and even if you’re the person’s father, you’re their mother, you can’t go into court to try and protect your daughter or your son or anyone, that the president is the unilateral power, despite what our constitution says about protecting individual rights and the courts’ role to protect those rights. The president can target for death any person anywhere in the world, including an American citizen. I mean, I don’t know what to say, except it’s over after that.

JAY: What level of court was this where you lost?

RATNER: This was the district court 85-page opinion by Judge Bates.

JAY: And what’s next?

RATNER: But as your caller said, if you–this is in Washington. If anyone thinks we’re going to do better than that going up to the DC Court of Appeals, which is one of the most conservative courts in the country, even more conservative than the Supreme Court, you’ve got to be kidding. And if you think this case is going to get anywhere in the current Supreme Court, you’ve got to be kidding. So right now we have, essentially, a president who acts like the king can do no wrong, including when it comes to murder. I mean, it almost says it all. And it’s unfortunate, but it really is a call, really. And there’s many ways you can go with this. One, it’s a call to say when you elect your next president, don’t just think that whoever you elect is going to make the change that this country needs. Unless you create a force on the ground in this country–and I don’t have the easy way to do that, except with hard, slogging work with people–we are not going to have change in this country. So we don’t have a lot of potential right now on these issues.

JAY: What kind of–on an issue like this, I know it was reported in some of the mainstream press, but generally speaking what you’re describing is a sort of an abandonment of the promise that was made during the presidential campaign by President Obama about undoing some of the unconstitutional measures of Bush. To what extent does the mainstream press report on your work and really take up these issues, alarm people about the importance of it?

RATNER: I mean, I think when you read the mainstream press, at least–you know, I don’t know what the–when you say mainstream press, there’s variety. So The New York Times would be, I guess, on the more liberal side of it, The Washington Post on the more conservative side. I mean, they acknowledge that the Obama administration is essentially continuing the basic policies of President Bush, particularly with regard to the issues we’ve just talked about, which are these national security issues of Guantanamo. Look at military commissions. There’s another one. Completely rum trials set up by President Bush. Obama just tried, as you know, Paul, a 15-year-old Canadian–I mean, the guy was 15 when he allegedly committed the crime–in front of a military commission. Who would have ever, ever expected that of Obama? So I think it’s understood now that Obama and Bush are, I wouldn’t say exactly two wings of the same bird, but on many of these issues are two wings of the same bird.

JAY: So just in conclusion, given that you’re a board member of The Real News Network, maybe you can give a–tell people why they might want to support us.

RATNER: Well, Paul, you know, I was really, really pleased and surprised to see how well you guys have done. I mean, I think the number you opened the show with was $168,000 out of $200,000 raised, and $200,000 is not a lot of money to do what you’re doing, and it’s actually a drop in the bucket when you compare that to what–you were in different kind of TV before, but you know, I guess a couple of good shows on a major station probably cost $200,000, and look what you’re doing with it. So I think that shows that there’s a base of support for The Real News that I was not surprised by, but I was just quite pleased by. And I’d like to see you not–I’d like to see us fill the gap of the next $32,000 in a very, very short time. And your coverage, not just on, obviously, the civil liberties issues that you talk to me about, Palestine-Israel, the Middle East that you talk to me about, but I think your coverage of the economic issues over the last few months has been historic. That kind of coverage you don’t see except from the talking heads at the top, you know, Bernanke talking to himself. And so I think where you’ve been really valuable–I mean, civil liberties is fairly straightforward. We understand it. But what’s not straightforward and what’s not as easy to report are the economic issues in an interesting way. And there’s many reasons to support Real News, but the diversity of opinions, the fact that it’s not all just–it’s people who are out there as activists, not just pundits talking, it’s people with–from all over the world. You’re not just getting a narrow US perspective. You know, I think there’s not–there’s a present and there’s a real future, and the fact that you’ve done so well so far is shockingly good. And it’s also very important, as we see what’s happened to WikiLeaks, as we see what happens to the major media. You know, the major media, they would have assassinated, if they could, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I mean, these guys are giving–you never see anything on how valuable WikiLeaks’s contribution has been to what’s going on in this country, what its foreign policy is, what its war policy is, what the war policies are, other countries. And you can get that at Real News. And the way they tried to close down WikiLeaks is really, to me, a primary reason people have to focus on The Real News, not just watch it, but support it, because you see what happens if you start getting government funding, As you pointed out when we started talking about public radio and public radio stations, whether it’s in NPR or etc., they get public funding because of that in the United States. They are subject to the particular government that’s in power or the Congress that’s in power. Real News is not, and we need that kind of independent news source. And WikiLeaks just shows us why we need it more and more.

JAY: Thanks very much, Michael. And thank you for joining us. And please join us again for the continuation of our webathon. We’ll be back in just a few minutes with Jesse Freeston. Jesse is a journalist that works with us at The Real News and did some groundbreaking reporting from Honduras. And we’ll be going back there soon. The government of Honduras has gone through a process of legitimatizing or washing of some sort, and Jesse’s going to go back to Honduras to find out what’s really going on there. So please come back in a few minutes for a conversation with Jesse Freeston on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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