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Michael Ratner: NSA and FBI spying on the lawful political activity of Muslim Americans, as revealed by The Intercept, is no different than the surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and other black civil rights leaders

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Ratner Report.

Now joining us is the man behind the report, Michael Ratner. He’s the President emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for being with us, Michael. So, Michael, what are you working on this week?

RATNER: Well, this week was an important week in terms of NSA, FBI spying. A particular story came out in the new online magazine called The Intercept. It was by Glenn Greenwald and–I think his name is Murtaza Hussain. And it was about NSA and FBI spying on Muslim leaders, particularly Muslim leaders who were lawyers, civil rights leaders, and academics. And he focused on the spying that was really email spying–as far as we know, all of their emails for certain periods–of these five really important Muslim American leaders, all U.S. citizens, as I said, lawyers, academics, and civil rights activists, none of them were accused of a crime. None of them were even under suspicion of a crime. It was spying, I would say, pure and simple, but not so pure and simple. It was spying on lawful political activity of these people, spying on people who were advocating for the rights of Muslims, and for the rights, in one case, a Palestinians. It was also spying on a lawyer who represented various people in the context of what the U.S. considers terrorism cases. But the key fact linking them all is that they were Muslims.

Now, the story came out of a very long list of emails that Snowden had apparently revealed to the journalists. It was something like, I mean, thousands of emails of people who were surveilled in some way, their email accounts. On that list were 202 Americans. They couldn’t identify everybody on the list–it was only the emails. But they were able to identify certainly these five.

Of course, in my view, as a human rights lawyer, it should make no difference whether one is an American citizen or not. Why should American citizen have any higher degree of privacy than someone overseas? But under our Constitution, at least the way the courts have interpreted it, it’s more serious when you spy on an American citizen. And so the fact that these five were American citizens is of some significance in our country. Of course, that they were Muslims is to me of great significance as well.

There’s a number of strands that come out of this story. One is–and the most important to me–is that this is completely unjustified and illegal, the targeting of Muslims because of their religion. I think about what if these were Mormons, what if they were Jews. Wouldn’t this country be screaming about what happened? Well, we haven’t seen screaming about what happened to these leaders. Let’s hope that screaming begins.

The key to understanding this story, to me, is in part, from my work, the context I’ve worked on since 9/11. It’s not surprising to me that the NSA and the FBI has focused on Muslims. They’ve been doing that for a long time. I saw it right after 9/11 when completely unjustifiably the FBI picked up young Muslim men all over the United States, put them in jails, and wouldn’t let them out of those prisons until the FBI cleared them for release. Think about it. The people were innocent, but they still had to get cleared by the FBI rather than the other way around. The FBI had to prove their guilt before they can be held in held in prison. So that’s what instance. Another one immediately after 9/11: picking up of young Muslim men, forcing them to be fingerprinted, and forcing them to answer questions, really, to some extent, on pain of deportation. So we see that the attacks on Muslims have been–their origin’s way, way back.

Or think of another one which I worked on from the beginning, Guantánamo. Do any of our viewers imagine that there would have been a Guantanamo set up for Mormons or for Christians, other Christians, or for Jewish people? Not imaginable. Do we imagine that place would be open if it contained another ethnicity or another religion other than Muslims?

Or think about here in New York. New York for a long time until our Mayor finally disbanded it, New York had a separate unit of the police department that was to spy on Muslims. And it spied everywhere. It spied in New York. In the case that the Center is working on, it spied on mosques, restaurants, places of work of Muslims in New Jersey. We’ve tried to stop it. We’ve brought lawsuits against it. So far we haven’t won. DeBlasio did disband that unit finally, but we believe that spying on Muslims is still going on.

Think about this. The New York City Police Department produced a film for training called The Third Jihad, basically just complete smearing of Muslims, including a picture of the White House with a Muslim flag on top of it. So this isn’t new. Think about the entrapments that have happened since 9/11 of Muslim young men, of people who would never have committed a crime but for the entrapments.

So what we’re seeing created in the United States and the fact that these five leaders of the Muslim community were targeted is not just a hostile work environment like we always alledge around race and sexual gender issues, but a hostile country toward Muslims, and you could even say more broadly as you look at our war machines all over the world, a hostile world for Muslims. So that’s one strand that comes out of this important revelation about spying on these five leaders.

A second is that they spied on people who were attacking–or they’re attacking, actually, those who are fighting back against this spying on Muslims. So in one case, a man named Nihad Awad, who is head of CAIR, Council on American-Islamic Relations, the biggest civil rights organization the United States, he is one of the five figures that was spied on. The Center for Constitutional Rights, where I work, put out a statement saying this is akin to when the U.S. spied on Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Jesse Jackson, and other civil rights leaders. To their credit, 45 civil rights organizations have come out and said this spying on a civil rights leader is outrageous. So a second part of this NSA spying story, FBI spying story is it actually attacks those who are trying to make changes in support of Muslim civil rights this country.

A third aspect that’s been important to me as a lawyer, of course, is the fact that one of these people–in fact, two of them were lawyers. A particular person, Asim Ghafoor, is a Muslim lawyer who has clients who the U.S. claims were involved in terrorism-related cases. Communications with lawyers and your clients are attorney-client protected. A government can’t spy on them. It can’t look at them. They’re not allowed to do that. If they could do that, the government would tailor its case so that your client would always be convicted. And yet here we have FBI, NSA spying on a lawyer, violating the attorney-client privilege as far as I can tell so far in that case.

I believe that there really no longer is attorney-client privilege protection in this country for people like those at my office, for people like Asim Ghafoor, and for others who represent in particular Muslims. The Center tried to bring this out in a case that we brought to stop what we believe is government spying on our communications, our lawyers’ communications with our Guantanamo clients. We went to court. We thought we had a very good case. The government claimed we couldn’t absolutely prove we were spied on, and the case was dismissed. But here we now have a case of a lawyer clearly, clearly who’s been spied on by the government.

Sadly to me, the NSA guidelines on when they can spy on lawyers, which seem to indicate they can do it–they can do it in the case of the lawyers at the Center who have Guantanamo clients, and they can do it in my case when I talk to my client Julian Assange and others from WikiLeaks outside the United States. The NSA says as long as there’s no indictment of those people or public indictment, they can go ahead and spy on attorney-client communications. At least it’s left open that they can do it, and I think it’s very likely they are doing it.

And recently, you know, there’s a board set up. It’s called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. It’s set up by the government to see when’s the government going beyond what it should, when’s it not. It’s basically not much of a board. It’s not much protection. But they also have indicated that there’s a good chance that lawyer-communications with their clients can be spied on–in the case that I gave, for example, Assange overseas.

I, actually, and the Center have a long history with this. When I first got to the Center, one of its founders was Arthur Kinoy. It was revealed that Arthur, that when he worked as a lawyer for the United Electrical Workers, that his legal conversations about what their core strategy would be against the government was spied on by the government and actions taken based on what they learned the legal strategy of the UE was doing.

Shockingly, and really shockingly to me as we conclude my take on this story, is there hasn’t been more of an outcry about the fact that these five Muslim leaders–and many others, perhaps–have been spied on by the NSA and the FBI. And what I’m worried about is in a few years we’ll hear mea culpas like we did about the spying on King and others. And the question for me is: why aren’t our major media coming out now and saying, this is outrageous, it has to stop? Why isn’t Obama saying, this has to stop? Why are we allowing to be created in this country a targeted, vulnerable population that is being repressed not just by the government–but, of course, that’s what this is about–but by the media as well. But we allowed it to happen with the Japanese in the Second World War when we put them into camps. It’s been allowed to happen with other populations in this country. It’s time to say we’re not going to let it happen to Muslims any longer.

WORONCZUK: Alright. Michael Ratner, thank you for that report.

RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News.

WORONCZUK: 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.