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Michael Ratner: Document revealing US spying on Verizon cell phone customers likely leaked by a whistleblower, which government is attempting to suppress through Bradley Manning trial

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who’s now joining us from New York.

Michael is the 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 the American attorney for Julian Assange, also a board member for The Real News Network.

Thank you for joining us, Michael.


NOOR: What are you working on this week, Michael?

RATNER: Well, I had a very busy week. On Monday I was down at the trial of Bradley Manning, which opened.

Bradley Manning is the young private first class who disclosed some 750,000 government documents by uploading them to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is my client. And they’re putting him on trial down at Fort Meade in Maryland. That’s one part of the week and one part of what I want to talk about.

The other is a question I have for you, Jaisal, and it’s the second part of what I talk about. Do you see what I’m holding up in front of me?

NOOR: So, Michael, I see you’re holding a cell phone. Why are you holding a cell phone?

RATNER: Well, you call it a cell phone, but, you know, a long time ago and actually in a book a few months ago, Julian Assange said, that’s not a cell phone; it’s a tracking device that makes calls. And I thought, okay, well, that’s true; they can track you through these things. But I thought it was maybe a bit of hyperbole. But in fact, today or this week we realize now that actually this is not a cell phone. It’s a tracking device that makes calls. And that’s the second topic I’m going to talk about, and that’s the disclosure in The Guardian, in an article by Glenn Greenwald, with documents, actually, that the National Security Agency is getting daily the phone records of millions and millions of Verizon customers every day, and they’re probably doing that for every cellular and hard-line company in the United States. So that’s the second part of this.

What relates the two is not only that Julian called a cell phone a telephone–a tracking device that makes phones, but that both Bradley Manning was a whistleblower, and I assume that wherever the documents came to Glenn Greenwald, however Glenn Greenwald got a hold of the actual court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that that was probably a whistleblower as well. So I’ll talk about both those subjects and how it really relates to this massive surveillance state we have around us and the efforts of this government to suppress any kind of dissent.

Let’s start with Bradley Manning. I went down Sunday afternoon, went to a wonderful panel with Daniel Ellsberg, Jesselyn Radack, Peter van Buren, Thomas Drake, all whistleblowers, to talk about what was going to happen the next day. The next day we get to court. It’s at Fort Meade. Hundreds of people were there for it, which made me feel very good, because until this time, which was the pretrial time, we had only a scattering of people. This time, 350 journalists applied. Sadly, only 70 got credentialed, which is an outrage considering this is the most important trial of a leaker in probably history, certainly since Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. But there were masses of people there, and that was good.

The courtroom is very small. It only holds 16 spectators, maybe ten other attorney types, and some press. I happened to get into the courtroom, so I actually saw what was going on in the courtroom. Others go into another room where they get a feed, but they aren’t actually in the courtroom. So I go into the courtroom.

And, you know, in some way it’s incredibly depressing what’s going on there. [incompr.] Bradley Manning has already pled guilty to charges that can get him 20 years in jail for releasing–which he now admits and admitted in a statement–the “Collateral Murder” video, which is the helicopter murdering and shooting the Reuters journalists and others in Iraq; the Iraq War Logs, which disclosed 15,000 more civilians having been killed than the U.S. admitted and other torture centers; the Afghan war logs; and the State Department cables. So he’s pleaded guilty to disclosing that material, and he could get up to 20 years.

But the government is incredibly punitive right now and is actually going for much higher sentence and charges. They’re going for espionage charges and this bizarre odd charge of aiding the enemy.

What happened on Monday is that the government gave its opening statement, in which it lays out the roadmap for what’s going to happen, and the defense lays out its roadmap for how it’s going to defend.

The government’s roadmap was completely fascinating. First, if you don’t even know much about computers, the trial was completely fascinating. The first thing that came up was what they call the most wanted list. Apparently, WikiLeaks did–we all know this–had a most wanted list on its website of documents that they’d be interested in getting through its–the procedures for getting it in an anonymous way.

Now, interestingly, that list of documents that it was up there, the so-called wanted list, was not generated by WikiLeaks. It was an open wiki that anybody–NGOs, etc.–could add to. So it wasn’t really a WikiLeaks list; it was an NGO, human rights list.

But in any case, the government says at the trial, we have a copy of the most wanted list that was up on WikiLeaks in 2009, and that’s the list that Bradley Manning was getting his documents–is getting his ideas for what to search for in these secure computers in the military base in Iraq.

And there’s an objection: well, how do you know that’s it? What’s the authentication? How do you know that’s the list they had up in 2009? And they mention a thing called the Wayback Machine. I remember the Wayback Machine, because someone once wiped out one of my blog sites, and my computer friend said, go to the Wayback Machine; they may have taken a picture of your website in 2009 or way before. And sure enough, there was a picture of my material, and I was able to restore my blog. So this is the first thing that came up is the Wayback Machine being used in the trial.

The second thing that came up, you realize, is once you go on a computer, basically your privacy is utterly over. You’re finished, whether they get their hands on the computer or not. But obviously, if they get their hands on the computer, you’re really finished in terms of privacy, because they get everything. There’s all kinds of memories that you can’t get rid of that are hard to get rid of. And, of course, they came up in this case with the daily number of searches for the numbers of times Bradley Manning searched WikiLeaks or searched for the term WikiLeaks.

It also–they were also able to get all the Tweets that were done either by someone called the Press Association, the government alleges, which they claim is WikiLeaks, and sent to Bradley Manning or vice versa by subpoenaing Twitter and getting a hold of those records, even the content, apparently, somehow, of those records, or perhaps to get them off of Bradley Manning’s computer. Bradley Manning, they claim, made efforts to wipe his computer, was at least sometimes successful, but sometimes not. The bottom line to this is every time you use a computer, you’re really broadcasting to the world an awful lot of information, and, of course, if they ever get your computer, even more, even with all your efforts to wipe it out. You know, Julian Assange always says the only thing we’re going to be able to do here is very, very heavy encryption.

So we’re at the opening to this trial for Bradley Manning. They talk all about this computer stuff. But laced throughout the opening of the government was efforts to try and bring in Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. They first said that Bradley Manning was taking direction from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but they of course had no evidence at all. All they claim to really have is this fact that Bradley Manning, according to the government, was searching for documents that were on the WikiLeaks’ most wanted site. In the government’s view, that’s somehow taking direction, assuming it’s true.

So on that kind of an issue, can they tie in Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to Bradley Manning, which they would love to do? They’d love to make him into a co-conspirator or an aider and abettor. I don’t think we can believe what the government said, and even if you believe it, I don’t think it’s sufficient. But that certainly was one of the goals of this opening, to send that message that it’s not just truth tellers, it’s not just heroes, it’s not just–not heroes, but it’s not just–I mean, he’s a hero to me, but to the government he’s a hacker or a person who committed espionage–it’s not just whistleblowers they’re going to go after, but it’s going to be the journalists, the journalists as well.

So the opening was in its own way frightening and horrible, because you’re sitting here and they’re trying to give this young man life in prison.

Then the defense opened, and the defense really give a very brief defense, but basically two things, one, that we have a young man here who idealistically saw what was wrong and tried to cure the world by doing it, or at least tried to get the American people to discuss this material so that they might change their views about war and remedy the situation. The lawyer for Bradley Manning, David Coombs, laid that out. He also said Bradley was naive in thinking that actually he would be able to change what Americans were thinking. He didn’t say it was naive in trying to disclose this material.

Interestingly enough, the lawyer for Bradley Manning didn’t discuss the substance of the material, stuff I can mention easily, [inaud.] the 15,000 people, civilians in addition killed in Iraq, the “Collateral Murder” video. And there’s a reason. You know, people said, why didn’t he discuss that? Well, you know, you’re not allowed to discuss in court anything that’s in the actual cables or the Iraq War Logs or Afghan war logs, anything that’s in the classified or secret or confidential material. Even though we can read it every day on the Internet, the government considers that to be still off the books. It can’t be talked in open court. So if David Coombs was to mention [incompr.] they would have to close the court, and it would only be mentioned in front of Bradley Manning and the prosecutor and the judge. It’s crazy, but that’s why I assume that none of that was mentioned.

NOOR: So, Michael, do you think it’s going to hurt Manning’s case that the content of the leaked material cannot be discussed in court?

RATNER: I do. I think it hurts him. Even if the judge knows it–and there’s going to be 28 witnesses that are going to be closed hearing, but they’re government witnesses that we can’t hear who are going to discuss the effect of, you know, these cables and what was in them or whatever, something about what’s going to be in the cables. They’re going to mention the cables. I think it hurts because think about his defense. His defense is to me that he’s a whistleblower who disclosed war crimes. He should be treated as a hero, and we should have accountability for the people whose war crimes he disclosed. But in fact, how is he going to build up support, how is he going to really get his story out in the newspapers about the good that his whistleblowing did, if that can’t even be mentioned in open court?

So we’re looking at really what you would call, I guess, a court of ostriches. Everybody’s going to have their head buried in the ground. We all know what really happened here, but none of us are going to be able to talk about it. Or it’s like the emperor’s new clothes. We all know the emperor didn’t have clothes on, but, you know, you’re not going to be able to talk about it.

So the answer to your question, Jaisal, is yes, it’s going to hurt, because the best way to gain sympathy here is to show that what Bradley Manning did was necessary as a soldier. He saw criminality. He should be the one that’s being honored for it, and the people they ought to be going after are the people that committed the crimes.

I want to end the Bradley Manning segment by just saying this is going to be a long slow process. The trial scheduled is three months. It may move faster if they stipulate to some testimony. For example, this Thursday and Friday court was called off because they were able to make agreements on what was going to be said. But right now it’s three months.

It’s maybe not difficult for people in Baltimore to get to, but it’s not an easy court to get to. I recommend everybody go into that court, seeing the way in which a young heroic soldier is really being put on a show trial for, really, the purpose of ensuring that people like Bradley Manning go extinct, that there aren’t going to be any more whistleblowers, or people like WikiLeaks go extinct, that there aren’t going to be journalists willing to publish what whistleblowers say.

So it’s important trial. It’s the first phase. We all have to support Bradley Manning.

Now, the second topic I wanted to talk about, which is why I pulled out that cell phone, which Julian Assange calls a tracking device that makes calls, is because of the disclosures this week that the National Security Agency was getting the telephone records of millions of subscribers to Verizon every single day. And there’s some over 100 million subscribers to Verizon. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is a secret court, authorized the National Security Agency to take in all of what’s called the metadata on our telephone calls. So if I make a call to you at Real News, what happens on that call is my number is recorded, the number I call is recorded, my location is recorded, the length of the call is recorded. [inaud.] probably some other information as well, not the content, but all of that data.

What this order did, the foreign surveillance court order did is told Verizon, ordered Verizon to say, we want the phone records of every single call that’s made through the Verizon network. You can assume that it was–the same order was given to every single telephone carrier in the United States, because what they’re doing is they’re trying to do mapping of every single phone call in the United States, allegedly (but it seems rather foolishly to me) to see who’s calling who, so they can figure out so-called terrorist networks. That’s the most benign I could think of. They figure out a lot of other things, I assume, from that as well.

Now, understand, they did this without any suspicion or probable cause or reasonable basis to believe that my calling you, Jaisal, or Real News would have any law enforcement reason to be surveilled at all. It wouldn’t, of course. So it’s caused a huge amount of, I would think, anger, upsetness.

It to me is probably one of the biggest stories we’ve had in the last year. You know, I don’t think it’s legal. The way it was done, under a special provision of the Patriot Act, was done without any standards. Of course, the court meets in secret. It can’t be litigated. It seems to me akin to, like, the general warrants when you simply hand [incompr.] police officer said, go search every house in New York City. That’s what this is like.

The claim is, of course, that the protection against illegal searches and seizures doesn’t apply, because it’s phone records that have already given out to a third party, the telephone company, by making a call. I think that’s absurd. But in any case, it still is akin to what’s a general warrant.

I hope there’s a huge outcry about it. We’re just at the very beginning of this crisis.

But what’s interesting as we all think about Obama as–you know, being some people, not all of us, not me, for sure–being slightly better on some issues than Bush, this was a Bush policy, and now it’s an Obama policy.

The positive part of the story is information is still coming out. And despite what’s happened to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the government trying to indict them and probably having indicted Julian Assange, or what’s happened to Bradley Manning, who is in jail and going to serve a very long time, probably, or Jeremy Hammond, who hacked into Stratfor, the private intelligence company, and is also going to do some time in jail and has already done over a year, despite these whistleblowers being punished and punished severely, there still seems to be whistleblowers out there, when they see a major illegality like this or a major effort to spy on Americans–this is all domestic. Yes, it’s foreign as well, but it’s even for fully–for full surveillance of just domestic calls. You see a whistleblower doing this. We don’t know the circumstances, we don’t know how Glenn got these or [inaud.] but it gives me great hope that there’s still courage in the face of some of the greatest repression on dissent that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

NOOR: Now, Michael, I just saw a New York Times op-ed from today saying that the Obama administration has now lost all credibility after this latest news about this wiretapping of cell phones. Do you think that marks a shift in opinion in the United States?

RATNER: You know, whether The New York Times represents the United States, Jaisal, I can’t say, but it certainly marks a shift in the United States. If they said all credibility, that’s pretty interesting, because, you know, they gave a speech–you know, they gave a–I’m sorry. Obama gave a speech a week or two ago at the National Defense University about drones and Guantanamo. I did an interview on Real News with Paul that people loved, ’cause we tore the speech to shreds. We just said, this is just Obama talking, has no substance to it. To the extent it has substance to it, it’s bad substance, etc. Let’s see what he does.

The Times gave it three-quarters of a page editorial praising it, I mean, more than you praise your child when he or she graduates from first grade or high school or college. I mean, it was overwhelming, the praise. And now they’re saying he’s lost all credibility. So it’s an incredibly important shift. I want to read the editorial, but I hope they really hit him hard. It sounds like they are. But, of course, they get tricked every time. It’s not a trick. They obviously want to be tricked in terms of when they praise him. Let’s hope this time they aren’t just, you know, going to go which way the wind blows again. But that’s great that they said he’s lost credibility on this, because this is–in my view, this is devastating.

And the fact is, if we really look at it–we’ve been saying this for a long time that we’ve become a total surveillance state, that there’s no privacy left. The digital age has finished it. And–you know, and Julian also, in his book Cypherpunks talks about this. He says, look it, the internet, digitization, all this brings us great freedom, so that I can talk to you like I am over a connection and actually have my image on TV. So it gives, you know, progressives and others great freedom.

But it also gives the government the ability to impose tyranny. And what we’re seeing now with the use of this digital means, the way they could get millions of phone records from Verizon is because it’s digitized, because you can send it over the internet, you can send it over, you know, etc., emails, etc. It also can cause great tyranny. And right now we’re in the beginning or we’re in the middle of what I would call the tyranny stage and fighting like this. I mean, that’s why Manning is so important, Julian is so important, Hammond is so important, because we’re in a pitched battle over whether we’re going to have freedom to dissent or whether we’re going to be moving into a tyranny. And I think this wiretapping story or this–really, this–it’s not a wiretapping; it’s this subpoenaing of all these phone records of all of us. Every citizen in the United States who makes a phone call, every person who makes a phone call, your records are now with the government, and that’s not the way it should be. And it is a very big step towards tyranny.

NOOR: Well, we’ll certainly keep following this story. And thank you for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you very much for having me. And it’s nice to speak to you again, Jaisal.

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.