Michael Ratner: President Obamaâ€™s record on human rights is no better than George Bush
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
When President Obama was elected, a lot of people had high expectations that America’s human rights record and practices would change. Did they? And how much difference is there between the Democratic Party in power and the Republicans when it comes to human rights?
Now joining us to discuss all this is Michael Ratner. He’s the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: And I should mention Michael’s on the board of the Real News Network. So what do you make of this question? You’ve been a very harsh critic of President Obama’s human rights record. Tell us a bit about why. And then, do you think there’s any difference between the two parties when it comes to human rights?
RATNER: I remain a harsh critic of President Obama and the Obama administration on fundamental issues of human rights. I was a likewise critic, obviously, of the Bush administration. I think there’s no significant difference between the two. In some way we can argue that certain issues are worse under Obama. And particularly for me the idea that the Democrats have gone along with the depredations of the Bush administration now basically makes the policies both-party policies, and in that sense they’ve become embedded as part of our American legal system and our American culture. So that’s terrible.
[I think that] the one that I was most concerned by, which the Center for Constitutional Rights began, it’s the Guantanamo cases. We started those cases ten years ago, 2002, in January. Today, as we speak, Paul, there are still 167 people left at Guantanamo. I would say 168, except that last week someone died at Guantanamo, a man named Abdul Latif. And it was a tragic death, and it’s one that really says a lot about the Obama administration. It’s a thirty-some-year-old man from Yemen, mentally ill for sure. A federal court actually ordered him freed. The Obama administration appealed that order. The appeals court, which is terrible, reversed the court. He remained in Guantanamo. Even the task force of the Obama administration said he should be freed. He was not freed. And now he’s dead. Yesterday it was 168 people in Guantanamo. Today it’s 167.
And I put that right at the feet of Obama, who within three days of taking office, as I’m sure we all remember, with all the pomposity of a president sat in his office signing an executive order saying Guantanamo is to be closed within one year. Here we are four years later. Not only is it not closed, but even people never charged with a crime, kept there indefinitely, are still there. And it’s 168 people.
JAY: So President Obama’s defenders would say that at least he ended torture and he ended some of this extraordinary rendition and secret prison system around the world. I mean, is that true? And is thatâ€”you know, people would say the Republicans probably wouldn’t have done that.
RATNER: Torture was pretty much over in the most dramatic way within a couple of years before Obama was elected. There was no more waterboarding, at least that we know of. Some of the worst forms of the Rumsfeld techniques were finished. There still may be some of that going on that we’re just not aware of. Where Obama failed on that, where he really failed, is essentially in giving the torturers a free pass. And just a couple of weeks ago the administration gave a free pass to some of the worst possible tortures, the murders of two people, and gave the CIA people a free pass on that.
Now, let’s look at what Obama did there. He first forgave the CIA for everything, from waterboarding and everything, saying, look it, that was within the guidelines; even though there were illegal guidelines, that was within the guidelines of the Justice Department, etc. Then he said, well, I’m going to appoint a special prosecutor and we’re going to investigate people who went beyond the guidelines. And then what do we get last week on a three-year investigation was a dismissal of even those cases.
Now, if you look at it from a non-legal point of view, what was going on was totally political. He appointed the prosecutor to sort of make it look like he’s doing something, and then just before the election, because he doesn’t want to make people angry that he’s looking at the CIA, he dumps those cases so he then looks good on, quote, “national security”.
So I don’t consider what he’s done on torture to be incredibly good. In fact, what he’s done is give a green light to torture in the future, because in my view by not holding people accountable for torture in the past, which is the way it happens for torture, you’re essentially saying, if we need to do it againâ€”quote, “need” to do itâ€”it’s not illegal, we can do it again. So on torture, yes, he issued an order saying we’re not going to torture in the same way as we did orâ€”. But he basically said it’sâ€”if we’d need to do it again, I’m not going to prosecute people, not if we need to do it again.
JAY: And what did you make of the Obama role in the NDAA, this issue of military detention without trial? At the very end, when he signed it, apparently he added something to it, I think, that he wouldn’t include American citizens. But the basic law passed which does include American citizens, if I have it correctly. Do I?
RATNER: I read it correctly as saying that Obama signed an order allowing the indefinite detention, the capture and indefinite detention of anyone anywhere in the world, including American citizens. That’s certainly the way the federal court took it when they decided the law was unconstitutional. Now, I want to say one thing about that law. We’ve been operating under that NDAA, but not as the NDAA, since right after 9/11. The law that Bush passedâ€”it wasn’t a law; it was an executive orderâ€”basically said people could be picked up anywhere in the world (it was applied to noncitizens, eventually citizens) and held as enemy combatants. Obama continued that. What the NDAA did was actually put it into real law and said, it’s law, and Obama signed that.
Now, people are very upset about the American citizen provisions. Well, of course you should be upset about that. But what’s amazing to me is you should also be upset about the fact that any person anywhere in the world, if they’re not an American citizen, can be detained forever without a trial. And Obama is continuing to do that. That’s why Abdul Latif died in prison at Guantanamo, because he was there as a, quote, “enemy combatant”, never convicted of a crime. And the only way that those 167 remaining, I fear, will be getting out of Guantanamo is in caskets, so that we haveâ€”the powers that Bush took after 9/11 are being continued by Obamaâ€”Guantanamo, indefinite detention. Military trials are going on at Guantanamo.
There are still prisons that we don’t know about. He did leave an opening for the, quote, “secret” prisons when he signed those executive orders when he took office. He said temporarily people could be held there. What that means we don’t know. [incompr.] saw recently that the, quote, “handover” of the prison in Afghanistan includes essentially a provision for secret prisoners. There are 60 prisoners that we did not hand over to Afghanistan. Those people [inaud.] essentially a Guantanamo in Afghanistan. And then there’s 300 new prisoners that we didn’t hand over either. So now that we can’t really take people to Guantanamo because there’s lawyers all over Guantanamo, like my office and others, they’re keeping them in Afghanistan.
JAY: So on the issue of human rights, you don’t think there’s much difference who wins this election.
RATNER: Well, I think on those issues that we’ve talked about there’s literally no difference. I mean, the torture issue would be the one that you could point to, but it’sâ€”in my view it’s so narrow compared to the other things he’s doing right now, and the fact that he failed to prosecute on the torture issue, that I wouldn’t say there’s any difference at all, and that if you look at the differences on other issues domesticallyâ€”. Remember, when Obama was a senator, he said, well, I stand against warrantless wiretapping of American citizens; and then, by the end, after he was running and still in the Senate, then he voted for legislation that included warrantless wiretapping of Americans, basically legalizingâ€”quote, “legalizing”â€”what Bush had done illegally.
And just this week, of course, the House of Representatives passed a continuation of the warrantless wiretapping provision, which will be duly enacted, and Obama will sign it. So if we look at that domesticallyâ€”I’m not just talking about Guantanamo and Bagram; I’m talking about domesticallyâ€”surveillance of American citizens [unintel.] warrantless wiretapping. You have the unleashing completely of the FBI.
The guidelines that keep the FBI under control, that prevent them from infiltrating groups, etc., were completely eviscerated, first by Ashcroft, the first attorney general under Bush, then by Mukasey, the final attorney general, and those guidelines have been kept in place by Obama. So the FBI now has free rein to infiltrate groups, to stand across from your house, Paul, or your office, look, see who goes in and out, to go into mosques, which they’ve done all over the country. There are something like 15,000 paid informants working for the FBI now, 100,000 nonpaidâ€”a massive, massive surveillance system.
So we’re not just talking about what Obama and Bush did abroad; we’re talking about what they have done at home. And I could go on and on [incompr.] talk about the demonstration policing, which I know you’ve covered in the Canadian context and you’ve covered with me in the American contextâ€”not just not better, but probably worse. So we’re not talking about really any significant differences, in my view, between Obama and Bush.
Now, that being said, look it, for me, for the issues I work onâ€”Guantanamo, military commissions, getting torturers prosecuted, surveillance, Muslim entrapment, I work on those issues, along with the Senate, consistently, no matter who’s president, because neither president makes any difference on either of those issues.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for much for joining us, Michael.
RATNER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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