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Michael Ratner outlines 10 things he would do if he were Attorney General in the new Obama Administration

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York City.

Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s a board member of The Real News.

Thanks for joining us again, Michael.


JAY: So I’m—let’s kick this one off with a question. So President Obama gets inaugurated, and all of a sudden he has this brilliant flash: oh, no, I need Michael Ratner as attorney general. Now, that’s as likely to happen as—well, okay, I’m not going to crack any joke, but let’s say it happened. What would you do as attorney general?

RATNER: Well, you know, it’s an interesting question. And I was asked the question by a progressive newspaper called The Indepedent as well, along similar lines. And, of course, you could decide, you could have a different government, a socialist government. But, of course, that’s not going to be decided by the attorney general.

So what does the attorney general do? Attorney general heads the Department of Justice. In, like, 200 and some years there’s been one woman heading the Department of Justice. So you have to assume it’s probably going to be a man this time, which is going to be me. And I came up with some ideas, perhaps eight, nine, ten ideas of what I could actually do.

So the first one is a nice—for all of us activists out there, ’cause you get social change through activism. And what I said was, handcuff the FBI, not activists. So the first thing that they could do is get the FBI off the backs of political activists, Muslim activists, people who are out in the streets, Occupy Wall Street people, and just get rid of government, political FBI spying, put handcuffs on the FBI, not on all of us, because that’s how social change is made.

And right now we’re in a situation where Obama and the FBI are still operating under the FBI guidelines that were suggested by President Bush’s last attorney general, Mukasey. And they’re terrible, because they allow spying and surveillance and wiretapping on people who they have never been even accused or even implicated in a crime without reasonable doubt. They can spy on anybody.

So number one, handcuff the FBI and not activists.

Number two—and this is the power of attorney general. Even if there’s laws on the books saying it’s illegal for me to smoke marijuana or take cocaine, the attorney general doesn’t have to enforce those federal laws. And so the second thing I would do as attorney general, I would just stop all drug prosecutions. That’s not the same as passing laws that says they’re legal. But as attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer, stop all drug prosecutions. Already you’re going to see our jails getting empty, less people going, huge budget cuts that will make a big difference in, of course, people’s personal lives.

The third is: what do we do about jails, and what can I do as attorney general? Well, I could ask that every single juvenile, every single person convicted as a juvenile in prison, under 18 years old, should be immediately paroled. They had no place in prison to begin with. They should have been treated. They should have been rehabilitated. Get rid of that right away.

Then I would ask that all the political prisoners be released—Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, etc., anybody—. Mumia, I wouldn’t have the authority. He’s in a state prison. But all the federal prisoners, such as the Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Get them out. And then, out of federal prisons, ask for parole of anybody who’s served over 20 years. Europe really has a maximum of 20 years. Let’s get rid of those. They’re just being in there for punitive reasons.

So I have FBI, drugs, prisons.

Then I would end the prosecution of any undocumented workers in the United States. No longer would we use a criminal system, such as operation streamline to jail tens and tens of thousands of people. End the prosecution of undocumented.

Fifth, I would stop the prosecution of my own client, Julian Assange, the investigation of him as well as WikiLeaks. I would have stopped the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the young internet activist who committed suicide really in part as a result, if not even in big part, as a result of the government’s persecution of Aaron Swartz, the internet activist. I would stop the prosecution of Bradley Manning. I would stop the one of Jeremy Hammond. Those are two people who allegedly uploaded documents to WikiLeaks. So I would just stop with prosecuting whistleblowers, just get rid of that, because they’re exposing secrets that we really have to know. That’s the sixth thing.

The seventh thing—and this is a hard one to get into for the attorney general, because you think, how do I make this country more equal from an economic point of view. So I’ve thought long and hard about that. I can’t change the tax code. But what could I do? I could decide that anyone making under a certain amount will not be prosecuted if they don’t pay taxes.

So let’s set the figure at, let’s say, $40,000. Anyone making under $40,000, if they decide not to pay taxes, I will not prosecute them as the Department of Justice, nor will I use civil jurisdiction or civil courts to try and collect those taxes. That would automatically raise the salary levels, raise the levels of income of, you know, probably the majority of the United States. That’s the sixth thing.

The seventh thing. I don’t want to let the bad guys off the hook here. I have two sets of bad guys. The first thing I would do is begin an investigation and hope to get an indictment of President Obama for operating the drone strikes throughout the world. I would particularly go after them for the killing of al-Aulaqi in Yemen or al-Aulaqi’s son in Yemen, a 16-year-old boy, and for another U.S. citizen in Yemen. There’s a U.S. law—and a federal judge actually just cited it in a recent decision on drones. It says the president is not exempt from a law that prohibits people from killing Americans overseas. So I’d begin an investigation of President Obama because he has killed American citizens with drones.

JAY: Now, not only will you never get appointed, but if in the wildest chance you did, you wouldn’t hold the job for very long. Go on.

RATNER: Well, once I get him indicted, you know, he can’t get rid of me.

Anyway, anything I would do is I would go after, obviously, the Bush–Cheney torture kill teams—implemented not only indefinite detention at Guantanamo and Bagram, but who actually tortured people all over the world—Guantanamo, Bagram—who rendered people to torture, and I would investigate and prosecute those people. That seems like a no-brainer. It should have been a no-brainer to Obama. It should have been a no-brainer to Eric Holder, the current person who I’m replacing. But apparently even that has been difficult.

JAY: Now, you’re talking Bush–Cheney themselves?

RATNER: Yes, of course. Bush and Cheney have both admitted that they ordered waterboarding, a form of torture, and they would do it again. That’s—you don’t need much more. They’ve openly admitted to ordering people to be tortured. And we know that people have been tortured as a result. Materials were released. Various people at black sites, one person 83 times waterboarded, another person well over 100.

Torture’s completely illegal. We have an obligation to prosecute torturers under the Convention Against Torture. It hasn’t been done by Obama. I as attorney general would actually—of the ones I mentioned, I think a number of them are actually realistic. That one certainly should be carried out.

Then, you know, how else do we get at the financial crisis? I gave us one way [unintel.] stop people having to pay taxes. I just won’t prosecute them.

The other way, and what I made up for this, is: too big to fail, too big not to be in jail. So rather than just give all of these big banks civil penalties, or these investment houses, even if they’re $10 billion or $5 billion or $500 million, let’s actually have investigations where we jail the crooked bankers, jail the crooked investment houses, because that’s the way, at least, we can avert not crisis—’cause we’re going to have crisis in capitalism for a long time, economic crisis, but maybe we can take some of the really deep edge off the next economic crisis by trying to get our banks, our mortgage fraud people, etc., to operate in a better way. That’s number nine.

Number ten. This was an interesting one. This was actually suggested by my daughter, modeled after a law in Bolivia called the Rights of Mother Earth, Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra. And what it does is rather than just talk about rights for human beings, talks about rights for the ecosystem and the cultural system that you’re in, so that when you do something, you have to not just think about what’s going to happen, you know, to me or when you build a dam, but what’s going to happen to the whole ecosystem. Bolivia has such a law. And as attorney general, of course, I can’t pass that law, but at least I could try and put that law forward.

So these are ten real positions that the next attorney general could take. And were I the attorney general, despite the political pushback I could get, these are things that I would actually like to carry out. And while they wouldn’t be revolutionary in the sense of overturning this society, what they represent to me are transitional actions, transitional demands and actions that ultimately can lead to a much more equal society.

JAY: Well, that’s great. I mean, I think if this was an elected position, you could probably get elected to this. Unfortunately, it’s not.

RATNER: I love you, Paul.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.