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Ratner: Obama declared end to torture and secret prisons, but rights in US still threatened

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in New York City. I’m joined again by Michael Ratner. He’s the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s a board member of The Real News Network. And we’re doing a year report card on President Obama and human rights. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: Alright. So continue on your evaluation.

RATNER: Well, there are some positive things that happened with Obama, particularly, of course, right when he took office. And one of them was the executive order banning torture. I mean, this was a huge issue in the Bush administration, where we went from, you know, secret detentions with stripping, hooding, dogs, all the way through waterboarding, and that was a gigantic human rights issue. And really, to his credit, the first thing President Obama did was sign an executive order banning torture. Was that sufficient? No, because if you really want to stop torture, not just now but in the future, you need to actually begin an investigation of the people who did torture and have a criminal penalty for it—it’s a violation of our own criminal law in the United States. Obama decided not to do that. And so that means if another president comes along, a president can just sign a different executive order allowing these techniques. But at the same time, it is a ban, and it’s very important. There are some weaknesses in the ban. One of them has to do with they’re still allowed to use sleep deprivation on certain detainees and some other techniques. But essentially it’s very, very positive that he banned torture. The second thing Obama did—again, on the first day in office—or two days afterwards, when he issued the executive orders—was he closed the secret sites; what he said, close them “expeditiously.” So as I speak to you here, I would hope that a year means expeditiously, or less than a year, that the secret sites are all closed. The secret sites are not what we’re talking about at Guantanamo or Bagram. Those are supposedly small jails. So they are small jails that were located everywhere from Lithuania, I think, to—

JAY: Uzbekistan.

RATNER: —Uzbekistan, to Poland, to Thailand, where they would take some of their so-called high-value detainees, or people they suspected might be involved in terrorism, and that’s where they would carry out a lot of this torture. And one thing you know about secret sites, which was why Guantanamo was so upsetting for a while, when we couldn’t get into it, is when they’re secret sites, the reason you have secret sites is for torture. That’s why you do it. So that Obama closed the secret sites, as far as we know—the CIA could be running something we don’t know about, but at least publicly we’ve been told those secret sites are closed. Those two developments, ending torture and closing secret sites, as critical as I am on Obama, regarding Obama, with regard to Guantanamo and other issues, those are steps forward.

JAY: Okay. Talk about the situation facing Americans inside the country, issues of wiretapping, Patriot Act, these kinds of questions.

RATNER: We have always been concerned, I’ve always been concerned, by the ability to carry out domestic dissent in this country, because the way you change policy is not just by going into the voting booth every four years, but by being able to demonstrate, to organize, to form political groups, and those have to be free from government intrusion and surveillance. And, sadly, on this I think I would have to give the Obama administration a failing report card. First, the FBI guidelines, which are what decide when and if the FBI can go infiltrate a group, spy on a group, have been broadened to the point—mostly broadened under Bush, but Obama has continued those guidelines, and they allow the FBI to infiltrate groups and spy on them, even though there’s not a shred or any evidence of criminality, and they allow the FBI to do it based on ethnic and religious basis—that’s sufficient. And of course what we all know is that means the FBI is going into mosques, knocking on the doors of Muslims all over the country.

JAY: We saw some of that also, not targeted towards the Muslim community or Arab community, but also against any kind of protest, for example the Republican Convention.

RATNER: No, we’ve seen the surveillance carried out not just against Muslims but, really, affecting general dissent in the country by people who were opposed to current government policies. You saw that at the Republican convention in Minneapolis, where activists were arrested and pulled away from demonstrations and stopped before they had done anything involving civil disobedience. We saw the suppression of dissent not only in Minneapolis at the Republican National Convention. We saw it at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, which are the groups that control the major economies of the world. And what they did there is the city, and eventually with the federal government, denied the permits for demonstrations almost anywhere near where the G-20 was meeting in Pittsburgh. And then, when they finally got a demonstration going, for the first time in US history they brought up one of those sound machines, a big, big machine on the back of a jeep or something, or a big truck, and it puts—and emits a huge sound that makes it impossible to stand anywhere near that, and has the possibility of damaging people’s eardrums. So that’s the way dissent was carried out in Pittsburgh, apart from the hundreds of arrests. And they even arrested somebody who was Twittering on his phone where the next police group was going, claiming that by doing that, he was encouraging unlawful demonstrations or something like that. So you’re talking about, I think, major suppression of dissent, of public, open dissent in the streets of this country. And it began, really, under Bush, with the Second Gulf War in 2003, when we saw the huge opposition in this country and we saw the street people penned in, not allowed to go to certain places, and arrested en masse, and it’s just continued from there. And, sadly, this doesn’t seem to be an issue that President Obama has paid any attention to. And we couple that with not only infiltrating groups, penning demonstrators, pushing them back, but then the surveillance we don’t know about—electronic surveillance, warrantless wiretapping. And, again, Bush opened up warrantless wiretapping, and sadly, sadly, Congress retroactively gave the telecoms, as well as the people in the government, a pass on what they had done illegally by, without warrants, wiretapping people’s phones, conversations, emails, etc.

JAY: Retroactively, making it legal, essentially.

RATNER: Retroactively. If you can’t sue them, you might as well call it legal. And then, going forward, broadening the warrantless wiretap bill to such an extent that you can assume—you have to assume, if you’re politically active, that your conversations are being wiretapped, your email is being read, unless—but you just have to assume it, no matter almost what you’re doing.

JAY: Now, what’s the experience of the Patriot Act in practice over the last few years? And is there anything being done to unravel any of it?

RATNER: Oh, the Patriot Act is an amalgam of various kinds of laws that affect many different areas of our life—financial records of your banks, of your credit cards. There is still national security letters which can be used secretly by going to your library to get the list of your books. That’s still all in place. There’s been some slight modifications, where if you get a national security letter, you can eventually notify an attorney about it and do something. You couldn’t even do that before. But the Patriot Act provisions that are most damaging, like these, the surveillance issues, had what they call a sunset provision: five years after 9/11, when it was passed, you know, in 2001, those provisions were supposed to sunset—be the end of them. But of course when they came up, as always happens with sunset provisions, they were renewed. So we’re still facing a Patriot Act that is as negative and as bad for our civil liberties as the one that was passed under George Bush in 2001, and there doesn’t seem to be any serious efforts in Congress to modify it. And then you have to look at what’s happened in the country since the—. We always said that we were making maybe some little bit of progress on some of the civil liberties issues, but since the alleged bomber on the Northwestern plane a month or two ago, I think any opening or room for getting back our civil liberties has pretty much vanished for a period of time.

JAY: The argument would be security requires it

RATNER: Yeah, right. The argument is that we need to basically profile as many people as we can, run everybody through all kinds of different scanners at airports, anticipate what’s going to happen in different groups, and therefore we have to have our people everywhere. Now, of course, if you look at what happened there on the Northwestern case, I mean, it’s what I’ve said all along is eventually they have so much information they can’t put it together. They actually had the information on this guy. His father called the FBI and said, “My son—you’d better look at this guy. He could be serious.” Or he called the CIA, whoever he called—I think the FBI. And, of course, they never transmitted or dealt with that information. So the problem to me, apart from the bigger problem of while this is happening, is that they aren’t even able to use what they have, and they’re not coordinated enough, and this is, you know, almost nine years after 9/11.

JAY: So a failure if you’re grading the first year, Obama on human rights.

RATNER: [inaudible] Obama has failed on dissent. He’s failed on surveillance. He’s failed on Guantanamo. He’s given us some credit, some good things on torture, some good things on secret sites. And so it’s worse than mixed, which is to say that he hasn’t done what I think could have been done without even causing his whole administration to go up in flames. I mean, I think these were areas that he had more room than he was willing to take, and he didn’t take it. I’m thankful that it’s not George Bush in the presidency, but I’m dissatisfied with what Obama has done on many of the issues that George Bush gave us. And what he’s done is he’s essentially—and I wrote an article just a week or two before Obama took office, saying don’t repackage Guantanamo. And what he’s done is he’s put a little different wrapping paper on it and said, “I’m doing this legally and not as presidential power,” but he’s essentially rewrapped some of the Bush policies, or many of them, and we’re dealing with the same issues.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the Donate button.

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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.