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Michael Ratner: Recognized by countries all over the world, whistle-blowing is a form of political opinion that is protected by the Refugee Convention

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Ratner Report.

Now joining us is Michael Ratner. He’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s a board member for The Real News Network.

Thank you for joining us, Michael.


NOOR: So, Michael, tell us the latest revelations coming out of the whereabouts of Edward Snowden.

RATNER: Well, you know, we’re all focused on the whereabouts. But, of course, as you know and as I know and we have discussed, the country really needs to focus about what he has revealed, what Bradley Manning has revealed. But, of course, they’re making it look like an OJ car chase. And in fact, of course, on–when I was watching a not-to-be-named network, they actually played the OJ car chase rather than focus on what Edward Snowden has revealed about the massive surveillance system.

But because everybody wants to know, let’s at least mention what’s going on currently. Every day is incredible. There’s new revelations every day, both about what he has revealed as well as about what’s going on with his current situation. I woke up just last Sunday to the news that he had taken off from Hong Kong, which has now been confirmed by Russia, and he is in the transit lounge at the airport, at least as of yesterday, or perhaps the day before, in the transit lounge of the Moscow airport.

Putin, President Putin made a pretty interesting statement. He first said, we’re not going to be giving him or turning him over to the United States, we’re not going to be extraditing him, and we’re not going to intentionally push him out, we’re not going to just put him on a plane to the United States. And, in fact, Putin talked about him as revealing or being an important person revealing information about human rights. So that’s a strong statement in his support.

The big revelation that just happened was Ecuador saying they wouldn’t be bullied by the United States. And I found that fascinating, because for the last year, really, this undercurrent of saying, we’re going to take away the Ecuadorian trade preferences that allows them to bring products into the United States at either no tariff or a very low tariff, an Andean tariff system, as well as a general system of trade preferences that Ecuador gets. And a certain number of jobs depend on that in Ecuador, jobs in their rose business, the broccoli business, some kind of fish business, and some other things they import to the United States. And there was a huge article in The New York Times about this, obviously in some way done in conjunction with or at least got the idea from our own wonderful State Department, or other people in the government, which were probably talking about the same thing.

Today, as I speak to you, Ecuador has just announced that they are voluntarily not asking for a renewal of these Andean trade preferences, saying that they will not be bullied by the United States. It’s an incredible statement. I mean, this is remarkable. But whatever happens to Ed Snowden in Ecuador, for the Ecuadorians to come and say that, this small country of 9 million people that’s dependent to a certain extent on these jobs that are there because they can trade without import duties to the United States, is amazing.

And then just to tweak the United States–not a little more, ’cause they’re hurting themselves in some way by the first part, in the preferences–they said, we also are offering a grant of $23 million to the United States to teach it about human rights and what that means. So here you have Ecuador, this small country in South America, playing a very, very important role.

And, of course, it’s a trend we’re seeing in South America now much more, and in some of Central America, but particularly South America, where you now have Correa in Ecuador, you have Venezuela still on a very progressive path despite the death of Chávez, you have Bolivia, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and as well as some other countries moving along a path that is at least somewhat independent and–somewhat independent of the United States. A lot of courage. It’s very important that it be done.

But, of course, that still leaves Ed Snowden in an airport in Russia in Moscow. And I don’t–you know, there’s no prediction of what’s going to happen. Is he going to be able to get on a plane to Ecuador? And the thing that’s–or Venezuela or wherever else that he’s–is willing to take him [incompr.] travel document. The problem was, of course, yesterday there was a press conference given by the–Carney, I think, is the White House press person, and they asked him specifically about would they use force to get a hold of Ed Snowden. And it was one of those questions they refused to answer and refused to say that they wouldn’t use it. And they particularly talked about whether they would force down an airplane. And it’s pretty clear that has happened before. And that is not inconceivable. It’s inconceivable, I think, if it was a Russian airliner, but it’s certainly not inconceivable if it’s a Cuban airliner or any other kind of airplane.

So Ed Snowden sits in that airport, as far as we know, right at this moment.

Now, another point that’s important to make about Ed Snowden which most media doesn’t pick up is the question of political asylum. He’s applied for political asylum. And he’s applied for political asylum on the grounds that he is being persecuted as a truth-teller, as a whistleblower, as a person who has revealed this massive spying scheme, this deceit and criminality by the United States. And most people say, well, that isn’t really being persecuted for the political opinions you’re expressing; it’s just because you’re a whistleblower and that’s a crime in the United States. But in fact, under the U.S. statute, under the Refugee Convention, under what has been recognized by countries all over the world, whistleblowing is a form of free speech, a form of political opinion that is protected by the Refugee Convention. It’s very clear it is. The United States has itself recognized the right to be protected as whistleblower. When they get people from other countries who come into the United States after exposing corruption or criminality in China or some countries in Africa, the U.S. immigration and U.S. courts have recognized that. And so the U.S. is not on very strong ground in saying that he shouldn’t be entitled to political asylum.

And, in fact, political asylum–and this is the important point–trumps any efforts at extradition–or, really, rendition, although rendition is an outside-the-law process. But it is more–it is the key thing. And you can understand that. If you’re extraditing someone on the basis that he was a whistleblower or what the U.S. would call, you know, a secret-teller, but in my view a whistleblower, and you’re extraditing him on that basis and the person was given asylum because that’s persecution, obviously it trumps extradition.

So that’s where Ed Snowden is. We don’t know what’s going to be the outcome. I’m obviously very hopeful that this man who has given us a real handle on the massive surveillance system being run all over the world will be able to obtain political asylum somewhere in the world, hopefully Ecuador, perhaps Venezuela, perhaps somewhere else, which brings us really where we began this conversation, which is: what has he revealed? People have obviously followed this series of incredible articles in The Guardian written by a heroic journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

Glenn has of course been attacked, as you would expect, in the United States, sadly even attacked on some of the journalistic establishment in the United States, calling him an activist or saying, you know, let’s talk about whether you should be prosecuted, and things like that, as well as his personal life. Glenn has come back very strongly. He has gotten more support than I would have expected on a lot of these things. And I think he’s certainly fought off successfully the idea that what happens in his personal life or any of our personal life is irrelevant to his incredible courage in publishing the information that Ed Snowden has furnished him.

NOOR: Now, Michael, I think it’s remarkable how much airtime Glenn Greenwald has gotten in the mainstream press. Do you think that stems from the fact that mainstream journalists are kind of giving him an opportunity to defend himself and air his views because as a journalist themselves, they know that, you know, they could potentially break a story where they’re targeted by the government or there are calls by Senators and congresspeople to have them arrested for doing their job? Do you think part of it is just self-preservation by mainstream journalists?

RATNER: You know, my short answer to that, Jaisal, is maybe but I doubt it. I think what’s going on now is this is the biggest single story in the media for the last week or the last three weeks. I mean, since the exposures have happened, it’s the biggest single story. Since he has left Hong Kong, it’s absolutely major. I mean, we have had requests–and I don’t represent Ed Snowden. I represent Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And we’ve had requests from every major media to put people like me on the air.

I tend to think it’s more that they’re grasping for a way to get an up on another channel or another source, and they want to try and get these people on. So I tend to think that it’s more about competition, it’s more about there’s nobody else to put on right now. They can’t get Ed Snowden on, so they have to go to who they can get on, rather than their wanting to protect Glenn Greenwald.

But maybe, maybe you’re right. I mean, I don’t know. They obviously should be protecting Glenn Greenwald. He is doing the real journalism that should be being done by the major newspapers in the country. They have been not doing the real journalism. And so perhaps they realize a person who’s a muckraking journalist, or at least a journalist who’s willing to publish information we all ought to have, should be protected. But, you know, I just don’t know. I hope that’s right. I hope they come to his defense. I hope they stand up for him. You know. But you hear things like, you know, he’s an activist, he’s this, he’s that. So it worries me a lot. But I can tell you I think every journalist in this country, every mainstream journalist has to line up 100 percent behind Glenn Greenwald. It’s probably the most important set of stories and revelations we’ve had, certainly in my lifetime.

So now let’s talk a minute about the revelations. I mean, our listeners or viewers are probably mostly familiar with the grouping of them. There was first the metadata on really what amounts to every single phone call we make in the United States and everywhere in the world, really, that comes into the United States, or even perhaps more than that, as Ed Snowden has indicated from Hong Kong, text messages, and other places like that, probably all over the world. Metadata, as I’m sure your viewers know now by this time, is every number that I call from my phone or that calls in to me, the length, the location, etc. A huge amount can be found out about that, my entire web of contacts.

Think about that in the next Arab Spring. Who are we going to support? I mean, who is our government going to support when we have our next person like Mubarak or, let’s say, the Saudi royal family and there’s a Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia? Are we going to furnish that metadata to the democratic forces? Or are we going to furnish it to the royal family, which will then allow them to pinpoint every single activist in Saudi Arabia? Or if there’s mass uprising or any kind of uprising here, it’s very important data. It’s critical that the U.S. doesn’t have it. That’s step number one.

Step number two is a system that people–or revelation number two is what we call the praxis system, which is going to the major internet providers, Google, internet and other internet users, Google, Facebook, social media. And really, those media, they claimed they didn’t allow it, you know, etc. The government claims they did. Well, we don’t have the answer to that yet. But using those media to actually spy on the content of our communications from this country, outside of this country, from others into this country, all over the world. So that’s the actual content. I don’t have to give an explanation about why that’s so serious.

And the third one–I guess there’s probably more, but the third one came out today, where up until 2011 Glenn Greenwald announced today in The Guardian that the Bush administration, starting in 2001, going through 2011, allowed the metadata on all the internet traffic to be collected by the NSA. So that means–that’s just–I mean, it’s–it boggles the mind. Every email I send everywhere outside the country to everybody and everyone that comes in to me, including the BCCs, the blind copies, including the CCs, including what machine, what computer it’s sent from, the ISP, every piece of that data is put into an NSA computer somewhere in the world, perhaps that big facility in Utah, perhaps somewhere else. So that means when I send an email from here to one of my friends even in France, everybody I get sent to they know about, as well as which computer it is sent from. They have an ability then to mine that data, both people all over the world and American citizens as well. That program apparently stopped in 2011, at least in its formal way of everything, but according to the Guardian article, it still continues in many, many cases.

The real question we should be asking is: why aren’t people around the world screaming? And the place that seems to be screaming the least is right here in the United States. I mean, there’s barely anything. Instead, we’re following car chases of OJ Simpson while we look for Ed Snowden.

There should be a revolt in this country. We now have a massive surveillance system on all of us. If this had happened in the ’70s–and it was the earliest part of my legal career–when we had massive surveillance in the United States–obviously not on this level, because we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have the sophisticated computers, but we had a lot of surveillance of our phone calls, we had informants in all our groups. There was a huge outcry. The Church Committee in the ’70s went ahead and, you know, had hearings on it. The public was outraged. Congress was outraged. And we got a bunch of laws in place that supposedly stopped it.

Completely those laws are broken down. The sentiment in the country against it seems to be utterly broken down. The idea that it’s being used to stop terrorism has been sold and sold and sold again our major media, and its nothing about stopping terrorism. They came up with 50 examples. They gave us two. None of them were particularly strong. The fact that you’re collecting billions and billions of bits of information and phone calls to get to this is nonsensical.

It’s much more, much more about social control. It’s much more about the next time a Greece happens or a Spain happens or an uprising like we had here in the ’70s or ’60s happens. It’s much more about social control. That’s what’s going on. It’s shocking to me that Americans are sitting there and letting this happen and that all three branches of government–the executive, Congress, and the courts–have done nothing, nothing about it.

It’s a little better in other parts of the world. [incompr.] other parts of the world.

Not better in the U.K., in the sense that the U.K. apparently is lockstep part of this system. And that was a fourth revelation of Glenn Greenwald and Ed Snowden, which is that the U.K., their equivalent of their spying NSA that’s called the DCHQ was tapping into the world’s fiber cables. I think there’s something like 24 of them. They carry almost all of the world’s internet traffic and phone calls, I think. And they were able to tap into 14 of those at once, getting even more data than the NSA have. And, of course, they’re working hand-in-glove with the NSA.

So you have the U.K. and the U.S. running this massive system.

The complaint, the first one that’s come out of the West is Germany. Merkel has finally started to say something. The Germans are upset about this. I did a German interview yesterday, and we talked about, of course, their history of the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany that had actual files on 10 percent of the German population. So they are very sensitive on this issue that lasted until, of course, into the ’90s. And so they are extremely sensitive on this issue. That’s the first place we’ve heard about it.

But there’s got to be a people’s revolt about this. Our politicians, which I think are, so far, 95 percent of them worthless on this issue, have got to have their feet held to the fire. We’ve got to protect the people who’ve been telling us all about this.

And I want to just end this really crucial segment about where we are by saying who some of those people are. We know about Ed Snowden. He’s in a transit lounge, apparently, in the Moscow airport. Julian Assange is in an embassy, the Ecuadorian embassy in the heart of London. Bradley Manning, the prosecution case is just finishing up against him at Fort Meade. He is facing perhaps life in prison for incredible revelations about what the U.S. is doing overseas to murder people all over Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. Jeremy Hammond is sitting a few blocks from where I’m doing this at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, having had to plead guilty to a possible ten-year count for the Stratfor hack. Barrett Brown, another person who’s been accused of passing on a link, just a link that was already public, a link to the Stratfor emails, facing possibly a very long prison sentence, in prison in Texas. So we’re seeing these what I would call whistleblowing heroes being hit with sledgehammers by our government.

And it seems to be having–and that’s the only positive effect I have here of what they’re doing to these people–it seems to be having an opposite effect. People are coming forward. And it should be understood that as this government of ours is forced to hire tens of thousands of hackers to run this system, tens of thousands of people who understand the internet, they are young people who understand the democracy of the internet or that it’s supposed to represent, and there’ll be more and more whistleblowers coming out there. And hopefully as this builds up we will finally see mass resistance to what can only be seen as the greatest surveillance state in history and something that can lead to really a real tyranny against all of us.

NOOR: Michael Ratner, thank you for joining us.

RATNER: Thank you for having me, Real News.

NOOR: 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.