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Michael Ratner: The empire has been hurt by the Snowden, Manning, Assange revelations

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

Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s also a board member of The Real News Network.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So Thursday is one year since the first leak, first documents released that was leaked by Mr. Snowden. What do you now think is the significance of all of this?

RATNER: Yeah, I’m going to put it into some context, but today we’re recording this on June 5, which is Thursday, which is the day the first article based on Snowden documents appeared in The Guardian. It was the story about a program which I’ll talk about. We have to take in the metadata [sic] of all the phone calls in the United States. It was a secret order in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. So it’s the first anniversary of that document, that article. And it’s also the second anniversary or coming on the second anniversary of two years of Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. That’ll be June 19. So the anniversaries in June–I’m going to go through some more of those–are quite important.

And I want to look at Snowden’s material, really, to start with, looking at it in a context. Think about where we were a few years ago, 2005, 2006. Yes, we all might have suspected we were being surveilled. We might have suspected, you know, what was going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. But since that time we’ve had an incredible trove of documents and information about both the U.S. wars, diplomacy, as well as about the national surveillance/security state.

And if you go back from 2008 or before, when WikiLeaks was set up and the government by 2008 said they wanted to destroy it, 2010 the Chelsea Manning documents were released, Iraq War Logs, Afghan War logs, “Collateral Murder” video, the Cablegate, 2008 you have the release of the Stratfor documents, private intelligence company, Jeremy Hammond. Two thousand thirteen–as we said, this anniversary today is the first of the Snowden documents.

And it’s, of course, a different world that we now have in front of us. We know about crimes, we know about diplomatic chicanery. We know about private intelligence surveillance. We know a lot more than we ever did five years ago.

But we also see the government trying to destroy the people who have brought us this information, whether whistleblowers or journalists or publishers. You have Julian Assange in the embassy in London, Snowden in Moscow in exile, Sarah Harrison, who brought Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow in Berlin. You have Laura Poitras, the filmmaker involved with the Snowden documents making her film in Berlin rather than in the United States. You have Jeremy Hammond getting ten years in prison for the Stratfor leak, in prison. You have Chelsea Manning’s 35 year sentence. And on and on, the government trying to destroy the people who are trying to bring us the truth.

So one thing I think about in this context is not only what it was like before, but what it’s like now and what our obligations are to defend those truthtellers and publishers.

Let’s go back to the first story, the first story of June 5, the work of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras. They had gotten to Hong Kong a few days before that. They met Edward Snowden. This is all reported in the book, a recent book by Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide. They met with him on June 3. And they do the first story, which I said is a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order, secret court order, concerning Verizon in particular, but saying that Verizon had to turn over all of the metadata on our phone calls in the United States and elsewhere–basically, how long, what cell towers they’re from, all kinds of information. And from that, of course, they make a tree of everybody, who’s in contact with who, and they get a huge range of information about it. That was the first story, a big story, because it was a misinterpretation, in many of our views, by the secret court of the FISA powers, of the Foreign Intelligence Act powers. And it also showed just how pervasive the surveillance is.

Second day, June 6, which will be an anniversary of, on this Friday, the day after tomorrow, they expose the PRISM story. That’s the NSA has direct access, through our computers, through Google, Facebook, Apple, and other U.S. internet giants, to data held by those internet giants, our actual content of our data–my emails, etc., another huge story.

So you have metadata, you have all the information coming out over our computers. Confirmed, as I said, what many thought at this point. In fact, it was predictable by many experts in the world of electronics, in the world of internet, particularly Julian–in a book called Cypherpunks, said, why would they bother any longer going after the Paul Jays or the Michael Ratners of the world? Why do they bother targeting? Instead, computers are cheap, they have the technical ability. Let’s take in everything, let’s store it, and then let’s look at it later when we need it. And that’s exactly, exactly what Snowden’s revelations have shown us.

A second thing they showed us, of course, just one of the details, is that James Clapper, the head of National Intelligence, is a perjurer, that he went in front of Congress and said to Congress, when asked a question by Senator Ron Wyden, whether the NSA had collected any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, and he’s asked that question of Clapper, and Clapper answers, “No, sir. (…) Not wittingly.” Clear, 100 percent perjury. And the question we have to ask ourselves, while Snowden has been charged, likely WikiLeaks has been charged or will be charged, or Julian Assange, rather, Hammond, Chelsea Manning, how come Clapper hasn’t been indicted for perjury? A clear lie to Congress. Why didn’t he just say, you know, I can’t answer that question or anything like that? Instead he lied, misled us, misled Congress. But, instead, no indictment goes on.

So that’s two of those results. So we’re on June 6. June 9, I happened–June 9, what happens is I just had been hearing a talk by Julian Assange. I was out in Colorado.

JAY: Michael, just before you go to Assange, let me just add one more piece to this, the revelations, which is the information that the NSA has been handing information over to the FBI to charge–to be used in domestic cases, and essentially lying about where the FBI really got the information, ’cause it’s not legal for the NSA to hand this over to the FBI, ’cause they have not gotten the proper warrants. But it’s clear now. We’ve heard it from William Binney and other whistleblowers that that’s actually what’s going on. So you can kind of add that to your list.

RATNER: No, that’s a very important point, because I used to do criminal trials more, and one of the first things you do in any criminal case: you ask, is any of the evidence derived from electronic surveillance? And in the old days when–often–it would happen occasionally–when they didn’t want to reveal the source of the evidence from the electronic surveillance, they would actually drop the indictment. So what’s happened recently, as you’re bringing out, is evidence in a number of criminal cases and indictments were based on electronic surveillance from the NSA. And what they would do is they would sometimes use that evidence from the NSA to then go get, quote, a real warrant to actually wiretap somebody’s phone, and then they would use that evidence, ’cause they could then show they had a warrant for that evidence. But in fact it’s what we call the fruit of the poisonous tree, the poisonous tree being an unauthorized use of electronic surveillance, and they were never willing to reveal that. And they actually lied to the courts about it, on and on about it.

And just recently, after a Supreme Court case that came out, they finally have said, well, now they have to start disclosing in the criminal cases whether there was electronic surveillance from the NSA that was the root of that evidence, very, very important revelations that came out of the NSA, and just shows, again, how our government–not just Clapper lying, but the Department of Justice essentially going into criminal cases and misleading, if not directly, directly lying. So it’s an important point.

So, going through these dates, June 5 (today), June 6 (Friday) revelations on PRISM. June 9, I had just listened to a talk by Julian Assange on a big screen in a hall I was in in Colorado, and Julian Assange says, you know, they don’t know Snowden’s name yet, they don’t know his–he didn’t come out by then. They don’t know his age, they don’t know anything. Julian says, you know, what’s happened now is the surveillance state has gotten so huge, they have to hire thousands of young people to do the work. And among those people, they’re not going to share the politics of a government that is doing this. And two hours later, I’m on a bus going to the airport. I get a notice on my computer that says Snowden is the person on–and he’s 29 years old. I should put in a detail that Julian said was they’re going to all be under 30. Snowden’s just 29 when he does it.

And that’s what the government’s facing, let’s just say. They’re facing thousands of people they have out there who may not share the government’s view. They may be anarchists, they may just not like what’s being done, they may be civil libertarians, may be whatever, Republicans, Democrat, but they don’t share the politics of what’s going on. So you’re going to get more of this, and the government has a problem, which is one reason why they’re being so punitive.

Let’s continue in June. We’re getting a flow of articles from Snowden, just a flow from Glenn, from Laura, more and more. We’re hearing about GCHQ, which is the U.K. equivalent of the NSA. They’re going into the fiber optic cables, the oversea cables, undersea cables, fiber optic. They take all of the material in that goes through the internet, and they’re able to–you know, there’s maybe 14 of those cables, there may be 30 of them, I don’t know, but they’re able to get into those cables and take in everything. And it’s not just the U.K.–it’s not just the U.S., it’s the U.K. It’s what they call the Five Eyes, which are the English-speaking bigger countries, which are U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and those are the Five Eyes. Some people have said there are antennae [incompr.] look at it as the five eyes on a bug. Their antennae are Sweden, they’re Israel, some other countries that closely collaborate with the Five Eyes. So that’s June.

June 21, Snowden is living–not living–he’s in Hong Kong at that moment, June 21. That’s where he met Glenn and Laura. And there’s a three-count criminal information issued against him by the United States: two counts of espionage, one count of theft of U.S. property, the documents. Very serious charges. That’s the criminal complaint, eventually an indictment, which probably has 30 different, you know, charges in it. But this is sufficient for the U.S. to ask for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, really China, something that we all expected would happen. You know, Hong Kong has a slightly liberal reputation on free speech. It is part of China. China was in negotiations with the U.S. at that period of some trade agreement. There was no way, I felt and Assange and others felt, that China was going to protect Ed Snowden from extradition.

On June 23, I hear that. I get–the news is out. I wake up to the news in the United States that Snowden apparently boarded a plane in Hong Kong and he’s on his way they don’t know where. It turns out to be Moscow, and it’s supposed to be a forward flight to Cuba, and probably then into a country he had asylum in in South America. He stopped in Moscow. U.S. pulls his passport away, as Ed Snowden said on an interview a couple of weeks ago–they pulled my passport, I couldn’t travel on, I couldn’t travel on to Cuba and then into South America for asylum, so I got really stuck, as he says, in Moscow.

An interesting and important part of the story is Snowden was accompanied on the trip from Hong Kong to Moscow by a woman named Sarah Harrison, an official or person who works WikiLeaks and who was there trying to help him gain asylum in the various countries on his route. And but for that work by Sarah Harrison and WikiLeaks, Ed Snowden would be in a jail in the United States today, not more than likely, almost surely, 100 percent. And Glenn Greenwald in the book No Place to Hide refers to that, and it’s important to understand what Greenwald says, that Snowden was able to remain free and thus able to participate in the debate he helped trigger because of the daring, indispensable support given by WikiLeaks and its official Sarah Harrison, who helped him leave Hong Kong and then remained with him for months in Moscow at the expense of her ability to safely return to the United Kingdom, her own country.

So if we look, we’re looking at heroes here. But if we’re also looking at the importance of that, because the debate we saw on NBC the other day–not debate; discussion, this fine discussion by Ed Snowden was possible, really, because of the work of WikiLeaks and Sarah Harrison, being able to facilitate his efforts to get asylum, ultimately, ultimately in Moscow.

JAY: Michael, let me ask you kind of an overall question, unless you have some other key date you need to get to.

RATNER: I do want to get to one other date, and that’s July 3, which is in the same context. Snowden’s sitting in Moscow. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, is in Moscow for a meeting. Evo Morales’s plane leaves Moscow. And people thought, ’cause Bolivia had either said they would grant Snowden asylum or said they would consider granting him asylum, the United States apparently, considering that it has the Five Eyes and everybody else spying, somehow thought that Ed Snowden was on that presidential plane [incompr.] Evo Morales. And what they do is they force the plane down in Europe, they don’t let it get refueling, the plane is forced down. So here you have the spectacle of the United States forcing down the plane of the president of Bolivia in the mistaken belief that Ed Snowden is on that plane.

I have a couple of other comments, but go to your question, Paul.

JAY: Well, just it’s sort of an overall question in terms of the impact of all of this. Some people, who I think are kind of sort of exaggerating the effect of all this, and as atrocious as all this spying is and as in violation it is of people’s basic civil rights and right to privacy, there’s a kind of suggestion that the surveillance state is so powerful that no resistance against it is possible. What do you make of that?

RATNER: You know, I don’t have any doubt that the surveillance state, the U.S. government, the Five Eyes, would like to end what has happened in Europe, with people in the streets on the economic policy, what happened here in Occupy Wall Street, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. I don’t have any doubt that that’s their motive–isolate the leaders, figure out who they are, put informants in the groups. That’s been the motives for hundreds of years of surveillance, of states and surveillance.

But has it successfully stopped it? Did it stop the French Revolution? Did it stop the American Revolution, where there was heavy spying by the British? Did it stop those countries that I said? The answer is no.

And, yes, there’s pervasive surveillance, more pervasive, probably, than on any time we’ve ever known, but in fact, as I’ve said, despite that, when there’s the discontent and organized opposition and real discontent and a driving toward either social change, revolution, and it’s organized, they can do all the surveillance they want, but in the end surveillance will not stop it. Will guns stop it? Will dictatorships stop it? Sure, in a certain way, as we’ve seen happen in Egypt, as we’ve seen happen in other countries. But surveillance alone will not be sufficient.

And I don’t think–and my message for people is–it’s the same message Mother Jones had: organize, organize, and take your actions, and just–you know, you assume you take whatever security you can, but in the end you don’t know whether your best friend is an informant. But you just have to move on on the politics, because, let me tell you, whether you call it the sweep of history or the sweep of revolution or the sweep of change, it will happen, and you cannot be intimidated by the fact that the state doesn’t want it to happen and will try and scare you–we’re watching you. But, yes, they may be watching us. But in the end, they cannot stop the inevitability of people moving toward the kind of change and revolution that will make their lives better.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: I have one other thing, Paul.

JAY: Yeah, go ahead. Fast.

RATNER: Okay. I’ll make my last point. You know, one of the issues that’s always been important for me is why I’ve gotten so involved, but why it is so important. The people who are whistleblowers, journalists, and publishers have a variety of reasons for doing what they did. Ed Snowden wants to reform the system. He wants to change the United States into the country that it should be, etc. Julian Assange has other reasons. Chelsea Manning has other reasons. Everybody has their other reasons.

But the story I want to tell–. In Berlin, I was with a group of representatives from a group called the landless peasants movement of–the landless movement of Brazil, MST, a million and a half people. They’re fighters to get the land back for these million and a half or two million displaced or impoverished farmers who have no land. And I talked to them for many hours. And at the end they started asking me all about Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Ed Snowden, and they went on for 20 minutes about it. And I said, why do you have so much interest in this? You’re the landless peasants movement of Brazil; you know, you’re fighting, you know, to get land for the peasants, etc. What’s your interest in WikiLeaks, in Julian, Ed, etc.? And they said to me as strongly as I’ve ever heard, they said, all of this work, all of this material from Snowden, from WikiLeaks, from Chelsea Manning, it’s a blow against imperialism.

And in the end, that’s what you have to look at. You have a hegemonic United States out there, an empire out there, and exposing it in the way it’s been exposed in the last few years is really–whether you call it imperialism or U.S. hegemony, empire, economic domination, in the end that’s what we’re talking about here. And that is why the government of the United States and the Five Eyes are coming down so heavily on those who were revealing this important information, secrets that shouldn’t be secret, and how this economic empire functions.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much, Michael.

RATNER: Thanks for having me, 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.