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Michael Ratner: Obama administration has reversed very little of Bush policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. Nine/Eleven was a great crime against the people in the world trade centers, in the Pentagon, people on the planes. But even greater crimes perhaps have been committed in the name of 9/11, and perhaps nothing more than of course the war in Iraq, where at least 150,000 people died, and the number may be as high as 600,000, and clearly by any definition a war crime. But also in the name of 9/11 have been grave limitations on civil liberties in the United States, and that’s another legacy ten years later that still continues. Now joining us to talk about the civil liberties and 9/11 is Michael Ratner. He’s the president for the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us again, Michael.


JAY: So, ten years later, where are we in terms of civil liberties after 9/11?

RATNER: I look at the post-9/11 period really as a sort of unit. And I would say that it include war, which you mentioned, includes civil liberties, particularly around Guantanamo-type issues, and then of course the surveillance issues that we’re involved with. And I would say that when you look at 9/11, my first reaction–I was actually there at the time it happened. I was jogging by the buildings. And it was so horrendous, and the city was so horrendous for those few weeks, when you hear the stories of each person’s death and their children, they’re really awful. But the reaction I had was we just don’t want any more wars out of this. And so–but the first thing that happened is the government of the United States treated 9/11 as an act of war, passed all this legislation that allowed the president to use military force all over the world. In fact, we’re coming up on the anniversary of that, the tenth anniversary of the authorization to use military force, on September 18. That’s still on the books. And as a result what we have is the first, really, spoiler of 9/11, incredible one, is the war and the wars you referred to in Iraq, but, of course, there’s wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, in the north of North Africa, etc. So war is one aspect that has been probably in some way the most troubling, ’cause it’s the most people murdered by illegal and unconstitutional wars, but also out of the military looking at this as military gave the president an incredible amount of power. It scared people a lot. And so the first thing we saw come out of Bush was military order number one, which took place on November 13, 2001. Military order number one is really the one that set the template for future of civil liberties, particularly what I call the Guantanamo syndrome or the aspects of detention and drone killing and torture that came out of 9/11. And the military order–and that’s, again, because it was treated as a military act–said that the president had the authority to pick up any person anywhere in the world, hold them in prison indefinitely, give them the death penalty if they were tried, or if they were tried, try them before a military commission. So we still have with us as a legacy of 9/11, and one that has become permanent in our country, what I call this Guantanamo syndrome. And what’s worrisome is that it’s not just the Republicans, it’s not just Bush, but now we have Obama embracing essentially all of the aspects of the Guantanamo syndrome. We have drone killings outside of war zones, targeted assassinations outside of war zones, in Yemen and other places in the world we probably don’t even know about. We have people being picked up just on the word of the president, captured or kidnapped, rendered to other countries, still rendered to other countries where torture is certainly still a possibility. We have them taken to offshore prison facilities, no longer Guantanamo, but Bagram and other places. We then have them held indefinitely forever in prisons. There’s 171 people left at Guantanamo. There’s probably many hundreds of others all over the world at Bagram and other places. And then if in their, quote, “good will” they decide to try those people, they try them before rump military commissions. This is all true today as it was true at the end of the Bush administration. The one difference–and you have to give, at least, Obama some credit for that–is he has stopped most of the worst forms of torture, waterboarding and the like. He has not stopped all torture. There’s still isolation allowed, hooding allowed, and sleep deprivation. And he has not prosecuted any of the openly admitted leaders of our country who engaged in torture, which means our future or a future without torture is no guarantee. So Guantanamo syndrome is really a second aspect of the post-9/11 scenario. It is very bad, it is still with us, and it is a permanent fixture of our landscape. The idea that I’m sitting here ten years after the fact in the same office when I started writing in November about are we moving toward a police state or have we arrived when they were first setting up Guantanamo, and 10 years later we’re sitting with 171 people at Guantanamo with a president who promised to close it within one year of taking office and now we’re two and a half years later and it’s there forever, it appears, I find to be so shocking and amazing in this country that claimed that it was a bastion of human rights. So we have these war issues, we have the Guantanamo issues, and then, of course, we have domestic issues, surveillance at home.

JAY: Yeah, give some specific examples of the legacy that still exists in terms of domestic civil liberties.

RATNER: Domestic civil liberties, when–again, when Bush took office or when 9/11 happened, he immediately targeted, primarily, Muslims right away. So there were roundups, there was special registration, there was all kinds of FBI unleashed. There was–the FBI was unleashed against Muslims in particular [incompr.] generally, but against Muslims in particular. And today what we still have is that same scenario. We have the FBI without any criminal predicate, no necessary crime, or any even suspicion of a crime, going all across this country into every mosque, knocking on the doors of Muslim doctors, really probably almost–you know, there’s 4 million Muslims, but probably a lot of them, and surveilling them very heavily. And out of them you’re getting all of these made-up prosecutions, where informants go into mosques, they found–find young kids who are susceptible to anger at the United States about what’s going on, and they lead them into crimes. That’s the same, if not worse, under Obama today. You secondly have the dramatic and strong clamping down on dissent and protest, and that’s going on both in your home and in your house and your home, whether it’s FBI, you know, picking up your trash if they suspect you of anything–they don’t have to have any crime if they just–you know, some interest in you. They can wiretap you under a law that Bush first was doing illegally, warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Bush went off the charts on doing that. It was a crime. It was hundreds of crimes, thousands of crimes, in fact, ’cause every violation is a crime. And then what do they do? They do nothing about Bush, nothing about the telecoms. And, in fact, Congress passes a law essentially authorizing the illegal acts that Bush did, and now of course Obama is able to wiretap, probably, the conversation you and I are having right now, the emails you and I exchange. So you have domestic surveillance against American citizens and others, Muslims of course focused on, but any kind of dissent. And that particularly comes out, of course, in protest and demonstrations, whereas whether it’s the RNC that happens in New York or the RNC in Minneapolis or the G-20 that happened a year ago in Pittsburgh, whether it’s what happened, of course, with the cooperation of the United States in your G-20 up in Canada, it’s a kind common occurrence now that our right to hit the streets and protest is being very suppressed. And, of course, that’s fatal, because if you’ve learned anything in the last ten years, change happens, as we saw in Egypt and Tahrir Square, as we began to see in Madison in a protest against labor cutbacks, change happens when people get active and when tens or hundreds of thousands of them hit the streets. So the fact that–particularly in this economic downturn, that they’re going after dissent is probably the most serious part of the surveillance state, not even related directly to 9/11 and, quote, “terrorism”, but related to the economic depredations that have been, really, foisted on this country and the world. And you’re seeing resistance all over the world, but you’re also seeing a real pushback by administrations all over the world to try and suppress these protests in the streets.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, 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.