Volume 76, Number 9 | July 19 - 25, 2006

Rights center tries to build on wins vs .Bush & Co.

By Jerry Tallmer

On Nov. 10, 1942, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons a few days after the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein.

“Now this is not the end,” said the prime minister. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Michael Ratner, except for a certain want of hair on top of the head, is not Winston Churchill — nor, I think, would want to be —but it was with a sort of Churchillian bulldog smile that on Monday of this week he said: “When we won Rasul v. Bush in the Supreme Court in June 2004, we thought it might be the beginning of the end. Now it looks like it was only the beginning of the beginning.”

In Rasul v. Bush, the United States Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that “detainees” held incommunicado for years without limit at Guantánamo Bay had a right to go to court to challenge the legal basis of such detention on habeas corpus and other grounds.

On June 29 of this year, the Supreme Court by a 5-3 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld threw out the special military commissions that President George W. Bush and his aides had had Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set up to try any and all such detainees — anywhere in the world — in kangaroo proceedings straight out of Franz Kafka. The ruling was based both on constitutional grounds and this nation’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners of war.

“Really an earth-shattering decision,” said Michael Ratner in his home just off Sheridan Square. One room is sort of an adjunct office of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the small but astonishingly effective humanitarian and legal beehive on lower Broadway of which he is president. “Though it shouldn’t have been earth-shattering,” said Ratner. “We’ve always” — until 9/11, 2001 — “adhered to the Geneva Conventions, which go back to the Leiber Code in the [American] Civil War and were ratified by us again in 1949.”

What was even more stunning about last month’s Supreme Court judgment — not just in Ratner’s belief, by any means — was its affirmation of the limitations on presidential power.

“If you read that opinion” — written by Justice John Paul Stevens — “it’s not inflammatory, but it’s very clearly sarcastic and very angry that he” — Bush — “can on his own

say-so embody the law.

“Bush himself had earlier said he was waiting for the Supreme Court to rule. When it did, if he were an honest man” — four years ago, Ratner had in these pages called George W. Bush & Co. “a bunch of thugs” — “he should have closed down Guantánamo. Instead, he is still resisting everything” — after a day or two in which W. gave signals (false, as it turned out) that he might be throwing in the towel on the matter of trial for detainees by those “special military commissions.” 

The terrible thing, in the opinion of not only Michael Ratner but high- and low-level officers and men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces — up to and including Colin Powell — is what trampling on the Geneva Conventions lays Americans taken prisoner open to.

And not just admirals and generals and Colin Powell, says one former service person, currently a journalist, who was once instructed to say no more than name, rank and serial number (11032747) if ever fallen into enemy hands; and who also remembers a corny, graphic, but compelling 1944 movie called “The Purple Heart” about what happens to an aircrew fallen into the hands of the Japanese.

“That’s right,” said Ratner in affirmation. “And now, think of being chained to the ceiling, no food, no water, no escape. At another time we would have bombed the hell out of anything like that. Now, any piddling dictator anywhere in the world can say to any American taken prisoner: ‘Look what your country does. If you can do it, we can do it too.”

Torture that is. Debasement. Sleep deprivation. Starvation. Dogs.

“The end of law,” said Ratner. “The end of civilization, really.”

To further its surprisingly successful bit toward keeping civilization going awhile longer, the Center for Constitutional Rights (www.ccr-ny.org ) has just brought out a 50-page “Report on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” Some of that treatment was reprised in Michael Winterbottom’s recently released movie “The Road to Guantánamo.”

Ratner — whose wife, Karen Ranucci, runs the radio-TV-Internet news program “Democracy Now!” — is a board member of the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St., where from Sept. 12 to Oct. 24 an Impact Festival will concern itself with many of these same issues.

He himself has not been to Guantánamo since the early 1990s, when he went down to fight the good fight for Haitian refugees who — in 110-degree heat — were sweating out entry to the United States from detention camps down there.

But C.C.R. lawyer Gita Gutierrez has been to Guantánamo of late, more than once.

“The center now has six people full time on this,” said the ever-enthusiastic, ever-youthful, ever-rational 63-year-old Michael Ratner. “And we work with 500 attorneys all over the country. Jews, Christians, Muslims, everybody. Big firms, small firms. The center itself directly handles 200 of the cases.”

The center is also working in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union in their parallel cases against the Bush administration’s uncontrolled, warrantless electronic surveillance, through the National Security Agency and other bodies, of any communications (telephone calls, e-mails, etc.) by anybody anywhere in the United States — not least, lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Because C.C.R. represents “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo and Muslim immigrants detained in the U.S. without criminal charges post-9/11, and its lawyers thus engage in many communications with clients, family members and lawyers outside the U.S., the center felt there was little question its attorneys were being spied on.

In the particular matter of C.C.R. v. Bush, a case lodged Jan. 12 of this year, in Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, the government is now, in Ratner’s words, “taking the ‘State’s Secrets’ defense [before Judge Gerald E. Lynch], putting some material ‘in camera’ where no one can reach it. We will reply soon.”

The government — that is, the Bush administration — has said that there are now some 460 remaining detainees, from 41 countries, at Guantánamo, down from a onetime high of more than 700.

“And the government says it no longer uses dogs. I would hope that dogs — originally directly authorized by Rumsfeld — are no longer used anywhere.”

That’s another reason, Ratner said, that Bush & Co. have reason to now try — via the Congress — to overturn the Supreme Court’s “earth-shattering” June 29 decision.

“If dogs are used, by the Geneva Conventions that is a war crime. If the Geneva Conventions don’t apply, no war crime.”

All in all, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights is reasonably happy. And reasonably cautious.

“We won in 2004 by 6-3. We won now by 5-4 [figuring that Bush-appointed new Chief Justice John Roberts, who recused himself, would have voted nay]. So,” Michael Ratner says blithely, “we’re getting close to tyranny by one vote.”

One thing he does know. Since the last time he talked with this newspaper, the place name Guantánamo has journalistically picked up an accent on the middle “a.” It’s even on his computer’s spell check that way — once with an accent, once without.

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