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Paul Jay talks with Michael Ratner on the issue of torture and accountability.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Friday was the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture. And at the same time, the ACLU and other organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights have been asking for documents to be released by the CIA talking about just exactly what kind of torture the CIA conducted. Just how is the Obama administration doing at holding accountable people who tortured? To help us answer that question we are joined from New York by Michael Ratner. He’s the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and also a board member of the The Real News. Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So, Michael, how is the Obama administration’s scorecard on holding people accountable for torture?

RATNER: It’s actually very bad on the two issues that we’ve been really working hard on since Obama took office. One is transparency—getting out the documents, the photographs, and all of the information about the torture program. And secondly, getting a criminal investigation of the torture teams. On the first issue, which is transparency, even as we are speaking the Obama administration is holding back a CIA 2004 report on interrogations that was done by the inspector general of the CIA. It says it’s going to release that on July 1, but I’m fearful—in fact, I’m very fearful that it will be at least in an almost completely redacted form. We already have one copy of it that’s redacted. The court ordered them to go back and reconsider, but I again think it will not really show what is really in that report. There were murders in that report. There is extreme interrogation techniques described. And so I don’t think they’ll [inaudible]

JAY: Now, how do you know this if we haven’t seen the report?

RATNER: We already had an indication of that. The CIA has been very careful in its statements about what it plans to release, and each time it asks for more time it says, we are still considering what to release if anything, they always say. And considering what they’ve done in the past, which is now to hide almost completely over the last few months and over the last few years anything really implicating individuals in torture or describing the torture, I suspect that we will be deeply disappointed again in President Obama’s administration regarding transparency of what [inaudible]

JAY: These issues seem connected. If one were to release all of this—and the argument against it is that it would inflame public opinion in the Arab world, and certainly most of the world. Unless there is real accountability, then you have an inflamed public opinion. On the other hand, if they really held people accountable and release the information, why would you have such inflamed opinion? But what do you make of their argument?

RATNER: That’s a very good point, that if you really—first, I think if you release the documents, I think your point is very valid, that as we release more information and the photos, there becomes more and more pressure to hold accountable high-level Bush administration officials. I think that’s a big reason why this material isn’t being release. Their argument is that it will, you know, and get people inflamed. My view about this is that, yes, that’s certainly possible, but how else are you going to end torture except by getting out on the table what happened so that we can prevent torture in the future? What they’re doing now is they’re hiding something that people in the world, even in the Muslim world, know what happened. They don’t have the visible evidence of it in many cases, although they have Abu Ghraib. So I think the benefits of releasing it are outweighed by whatever harm their claiming by not releasing it, the benefits being that we may finally get a criminal investigation [inaudible] deter torture in the future. That is extremely critical.

JAY: I’ve talked to some people, and I think off-camera what you would hear from the Obama administration—I don’t think Obama could ever say this publicly, but they seem to think that if you go after prosecution, it inevitably leads you to Bush and Cheney, who have publicly acknowledged, certainly on waterboarding, and perhaps if under investigation would go in even further, that they said they gave the okay to this, they’ve said they gave the okay to waterboarding. And the fear, I guess, from the Obama administration—if it’s a fear—is that this begins a kind of civil war with a whole section of the political elite, and even some section of the population that supports Bush-Cheney, and the drumbeats coming from Fox, and they don’t want to have this war now. What do you make of that argument?

RATNER: You know what’s fascinating about that argument? That’s the same argument that’s given in every so-called “new democracy” that emerges after a period of torture, but even a civil war. Whether it’s Chile or Argentina, they always say, “Our democracy’s too fragile. It’s going to cause too much tension.” In the end, the law is very clear: you have an absolute obligation to investigate a torture team, and that’s how you deter torture in the future. So the fact that they were sort of aping arguments, in the Obama administration, made in Argentina and Chile I find appalling. And, yes, the answer is it’s difficult. It’s difficult to go after those people. But the answer is it’s necessary if we’re actually to be a civilized country. And what’s interesting about that is the UN high commissioner for human rights, Ms. Pillay from South Africa, made a very strong statement regarding this very issue on this International Day of Support for Survivors of Torture [sic]. She said people should not be exonerated when they were engaged in torture, and that includes the lawyers and the doctors who were involved in it. And then she said that the torture was barbaric and that a country that engages in it or condones it—and by failure to prosecute, you’re condoning it—a country that condones it does not deserve to be called a civilized country. So that’s what we’re talking about. Words about civil war or, you know, civil problems and problems about Bush and Cheney are just words. What we’re talking about is a country that is really deemed uncivilized when it doesn’t go after its own torturers.

JAY: What are you hoping for? What will be a litmus test for you in the next week or two whether the Obama administration actually plans anything? Obama himself said that he was going to leave this up to the attorney general. But the media and the political world seem to have just moved on from this issue. Are we going to hear anything from the attorney general?

RATNER: You know, Paul, when we had this discussion a couple of months ago, it seemed like we were making progress on the issue. But, actually, there was so much pressure, but that was in part because of the release of a number of the torture memos. Since then, the administration seems to have smartened up, in their terms, and has stopped releasing the photos, the CIA report. It’s put in state-secrecy protections in various lawsuits that we in the ACLU have brought. So they seem to be trying to close that door. And I don’t expect much without getting some revelations, some transparency here. Where I think our expectations are now is that the cases in Europe which are proceeding and will most likely proceed, particularly Spain, despite some narrowing of the Spanish law, will ultimately put pressure on this administration to begin a criminal investigation. I suspect within the next year we will see more serious efforts to begin criminal investigations in the United States really as a means to avoid problems in Europe.

JAY: Is there any indication that the attorney general is making any moves towards this at this time?

RATNER: If anything, the indications are that this country or this administration is doing everything it can to bottle up and cover over any kind of look at the torture program, any kind of public accountability for it, and any kind of legal accountability for it. So I think there’s indications that they want to run the other way.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And if you would like to see more coverage on this issue of torture accountability, defense of the Constitution, we need members, we need your support, ’cause without it we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. So the donate button is right there. Thank you.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.