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The Real News Network’s Senior Editor Paul Jay and head of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) Michael Ratner discuss the demolishment of people’s constitutional rights and civil liberties.

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Obama and civil liberties

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: As president-elect Obama gets ready to take office, one of the major questions facing him will be: what does he do about abuse of power, the unitary presidency, various pieces of legislation that many civil liberties advocates considered a demolishment of people’s constitutional rights? Now joining us: an expert in this field, Michael Ratner, who’s head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and, for full disclosure, also a board member of The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So, Michael, react to—how did this make you feel, the election of President Obama? You’ve been very critical of Obama on his civil liberty policies. So talk about how you feel about his election. And what will be the litmus test for you of whether this administration is really taking up some of the abuses of the last eight years?

RATNER: Certainly I’ve been very critical on a number of positions of Obama, from wiretapping to positions on the war, to a variety of other civil liberties issues, the death penalty. And at the same time, this was an extraordinary moment in American history. I mean, that we have a black family about to live in the White House, a White House that slaves actually built, is quite quite extraordinary. And as a person who was raised under a very racist society, when I used to go to Florida and there were drinking fountains that said “Colored Only,” even into the ’50s, you know, this is an amazing moment in American history and does demonstrate a real shift going on in the country. Plus you have to say we’re not going to have a Republican, and we’re not going to have the same sort of off-the-charts, off-the-law Republicans that have been running this country. So that’s all very positive. At the same time, Obama in this election has moved heavily to the center on issues that I really care about, and that gives you great pause. His new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is a very moderate Democrat, was one of the only members of the Illinois congressional delegation to vote in favor of the Iraq War. At the same time, Obama has made a number of promises, at least on some of the issues that are at least the heart of some of my work, which is he said he would close Guantanamo, he said he would end torture—and what that means is stop the CIA from torturing people in secret sites—and he said he doesn’t favor the current military commissions system that’s going on at Guantanamo, but he favors criminal trials. Now, those are just promises. And as I know with any president, even on those three issues where he spoke very boldly, really, and on his Web site as well, though, is you still have to hold their feet to the fire, because it’s certainly not going to be a main priority. You have the economy here, you have the war here, etcetera. But those are three issues that are of great concern to me. There’s obviously a number of other issues out there. Everybody knows about the Patriot Act, the surveillance state we’ve set up in the United States, the idea that we’re still running prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq that are very abusive. And, again, with all of these kinds of issues, including the war, it’s going to take a very active movement to keep Obama strong on any of these issues. And one thing this campaign did do which is positive: it mobilized millions and millions of young people. And the question now is how to keep those people going so that some of these issues change. But what concerns me, certainly, is that the human rights issues, the civil liberties issues, other than the ones that are for appearance, like closing Guantanamo, at least to the government, will not be a top priority; obviously, the economy’s going to be, and hopefully the war in some way.

JAY: The issue of the repeal of the Patriot Act, is that an important issue? And is there any sign we might see anything in this direction?

RATNER: That hasn’t come up at all, Paul. The Patriot Act repeal is not even on the table as far as I can tell. I mean, some aspects of the Patriot Act conceivably could get some attention—national security letters, which allow the FBI to get information from banks to libraries about individuals without going to court, the definition of “terrorism.” But it’s unlikely. It just hasn’t been an issue. I mean, look it: the issue of torture never even came up in the debates, except when McCain tried to differentiate himself from President Bush by saying, “I differ with him on Guantanamo, and I differ with him on allowing torture.” Never was debated and never brought up. So even there, and certainly even on closing Guantanamo, I’m concerned.

JAY: We’ve talked before about what you considered—the impeachment of Bush and the question of prosecution of Bush—very important in terms of the defense of the Constitution. We’re certainly not likely to see any movement on impeachment. How important is the prosecution of Bush and Cheney? And do you have any expectations in terms of this with the Obama administration?

RATNER: This issue of accountability and how it should be done for the torture program, the war, the wiretapping is actually much discussed among human rights groups. And it varies from truth commissions to our position at the Center for Constitutional Rights [of] beginning criminal prosecutions. Again, I think the problem here is we’re faced with an economy that’s falling apart, and we’re also faced with part of this Democratic administration going to say, “Well, we should be looking forward, not backwards. Let’s try and stop these things.” But of course our answer is, to stop them, to stop them for the future, you have to have accountability. So we are heavily, heavily pushing a special prosecutor to look into these crimes. Obama administration has made some songs about looking into crimes if they happen and things like that, but we’re certainly not yet at the point where I think we could say that in a year we’re going to see criminal prosecutions.

JAY: Which cabinet post is most important when it comes to constitutional rights? And who would you like to see fill it?

RATNER: The attorney general of the United States is obviously the most important. That’s the old Gonzales position. Presidents generally like attorney generals who they can control and are under them. And what we need now is a really bold attorney general who’s going to be willing to say this Bush administration may have committed crimes, whether in the area of the war, or torture, or the attorney general’s firings, or wiretapping, and we need someone who can go after that. We need someone who’s not going to unleash the FBI, as the last has, on the Muslim community, with new kinds of guidelines. So we need someone who’s going to actually come in and say, “I’m going to really recast the laws that have happened here and recast the role of the FBI.” And I don’t see anybody right now on the table that’s like that.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Michael. Once we find out the appointment, we’ll come back for your reaction.

RATNER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you all for joining us.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.