Obama’s national security state: Interview with Michael Ratner
by Anthony Arnove
International Socialist Review
Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and is adjunct professor of law at Columbia University Law School. Ratner has also been a lecturer of international human rights litigation at the Yale Law School and the Columbia School of Law, president of the National Lawyers Guild, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and radio co-host for the civil rights show Law and Disorder. Ratner serves on the board of The Culture Project in New York City and is vice-president of the board of Voices of a People’s History of the United States. He spoke to Anthony Arnove, a member of the ISR editorial board and author of the book Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal.
LET’S START with the Obama administration’s policies on habeas corpus and on torture. As a presidential candidate, Obama said he would close Guantánamo, said he believed in habeas corpus rights, and was critical of President Bush. What’s been his practice since he came to office?
MY OFFICE, CCR, is one of the legal groups that represents many of the Guantánamo detainees and brings these writs of habeas corpus. That is a fancy way of saying, “Let’s go to court, and see if there’s any evidence to hold the person.” The expectations of the team of lawyers representing the detainees was very high that Guantánamo would actually close, that Obama would do it. There were probably a little over 300 people in Guantánamo when he took office. It’s down to maybe 200-some now. But we expected better—and now it may go on for years. We really thought that Obama wouldn’t fight us in court on the rights of the detainees, that he would get the detainees either to another country or he would charge and try them. And of course, it hasn’t worked out that way at all, and it’s a deep disappointment. In fact a lot of the habeas lawyers signed a letter supporting Obama saying his election would actually be good for our clients. Obama’s effort to close it seemingly got off to a somewhat quick start. Obama, within two days of being in office, signed an executive order, which is essentially a presidential order, which said that Guantánamo would be closed in a year. Of course, as we speak now, it’s more than a year and a half after that order, and it is not near closed. Obama’s commitment has been abandoned. And he made a number of other promises that have not been met about secret detention sites, military commissions, and the like.
Obama has put new clothes on the Bush doctrine toward “enemy combatants,” but the underlying lawlessness of the doctrine is the same. In particular, imagine this: you go to court on behalf of someone in Guantánamo, and the judge has to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to hold him. What Bush said was they can be held as “enemy combatants,” and he gave the term a vague definition, such as that the person was hostile to the United States or picked up arms against the United States or belonged to a group that was hostile to the United States. If there was “evidence” those detainees could be held in prison indefinitely, essentially a form of preventive detention. We had hoped Obama would get rid of that entire preventive detention scheme. CCR’s view is there should not be a preventive detention scheme—it’s illegal and immoral. What you must do, and what is legally necessary, is to charge someone with a crime, and hold them only if they’re convicted. The rule is simple: charge and try people with crimes, or release them. There are not any other valid legal choices.
I considered this preventive detention scheme to be one of the worst hallmarks of the Bush administration. Sadly, this intolerable preventive detention scheme has continued, and you could say continued with a vengeance, under Obama. He has repeatedly stated that he is continuing the preventive detention scheme. He said that at his major speech on Guantánamo in May 2009. He has repeated it again and again. We expect at least fifty of the Guantánamo people to be held under a scheme in which they’re preventively detained, which is to say they are never charged with a crime. They’re held in a prison right now in Guantánamo, or perhaps could be taken somewhere else. Now the somewhere else could be this prison the U.S. government is trying to buy in Illinois. For now, Congress is stopping that, as Congress, including many Democrats, wants to keep Guantánamo opened. It passed legislation prohibiting the spending of any money to buy or refurbish a prison in the United States for this purpose. Our view is that moving Guantánamo from an offshore location to a U.S. continental location makes no difference to our clients. In fact, it could be worse if the process is exactly the same, if they’re still held in preventive detention and if the administration then considers the problem solved. The effort to repackage Guantánamo in Illinois is a transparent attempt to close Guantánamo while keeping it open in Illinois. So what’s the difference? They’re just moving the Bush scheme from an island to the continent.
So as to closing Guantánamo, and particularly on this issue of habeas corpus and preventive detention, Obama has been a disaster. And Obama has followed the Bush policy on its limitations as to the power of judges to release Guantánamo detainees. When you win a habeas corpus case in the court, the court says, “Well, even under the Obama definition,” which is roughly the same as a Bush definition of enemy combatant, “there’s no evidence that your client was hostile to the United States in the way in which the U.S. claims. The evidence is fallacious. It’s no good. And therefore, I order your client released.” The Bush administration took the position that, yes, the judge could find that a detainee shouldn’t be held, but the judge had no right to release him because that was a foreign policy matter up to the president. So you had a system of law that had no power. No matter what the court decided, the president could decide differently. You might ask, “What happened to checks and balances under our Constitution and what happened to the independence of the judiciary?” Well, the president made himself the boss.
We had hoped Obama would do better, but that’s not the case. We’ve won a number of habeas cases before federal judges in Washington, D.C. They’ve said, “As to your client, there’s no evidence to hold him.” The Uighurs, Muslims from Western China, are the classic example of that. They can’t be sent back to China because it is likely they will be tortured in China. Therefore, the judge says, “I’m going to release them.” Fine, they should be released to the United States. And of course, the Obama administration then asserts that a federal court has no right to release the detainees into the United States even if they are utterly innocent. So our clients, even though many of them have been found to not fit any definition of an enemy combatant are still sitting in Guantánamo.
So Obama is the same as Bush regarding the use of preventive detention. He’s the same regarding his refusal to accept that a federal judge has the authority to release a detainee who is innocent. Now think about that. If a federal judge doesn’t have the right to release someone from custody, what kind of a state are we talking about? Is that a democratic state with protections for the individual? Or is it essentially a police state where the executive overrides a court decision and says, “I’m going to keep you in prison?” So to say I’m disappointed, disappointed would not be the right word for me. I didn’t have high expectations. I never have for the executive. But after eight and a half years of litigation, win after win in the courts, and after Obama’s promises, his actions regarding Guantánamo are repugnant: repugnant for those wrongly tortured and jailed—and repugnant to fundamental precepts of liberty that have taken a thousand years to establish.
The fight continues. The lawyers, and sadly the clients, are deep in the trenches and no one seems to give a damn about it. In fact, you could almost say Obama is one thing, but of course the Congress is, I wouldn’t say another thing, but it is so right wing on these issues, so nasty and draconian, that the slightest effort to bring a Guantánamo detainee to the United States brings out the nativism and antediluvian Republicans and Democrats, which constitute a majority. The Democratic Congress actually passed a law saying no Guantánamo detainee could be brought to the United States, even if the detainee was jailed, much less released.
Some people say, well, “Obama is caught by the right-wingers in Congress. And what can you do about it?” But of course, many Democrats, obviously a majority of them, go along with these punitive policies. The Democrats apparently don’t want to appear weak on national security or perhaps they really believe in preventive detention or that a Uighur is a danger in America. They think if they appear weak on what they consider national security that somehow they’re going to lose the next election. And so they almost outdo the Republicans on these issues with Guantánamo and the like.
We now have the spectacle of a Democratic president selling out the Constitution and with it the lives of innocents at Guantánamo and the freedom of future generations as these special laws become the laws for all of us.
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