Revolution #77, January 28, 2007


Pentagon Attacks  Lawyers Defending Guantánamo Prisoners

Interview with Michael Ratner, Center for Constitutional Rights

On Jan 12, Charles Stimson, the senior Pentagon official in charge of military detainees, attacked the attorneys at many top law firms who are representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay pro bono, for free. Stimson called on these firms’ corporate clients to ask the firms “to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.” The following is an interview with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is headquartered in New York.

The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.

Revolution: What was your reaction to Stimson’s remarks?

Michael Ratner: Clearly, it was an attempt to undermine the right of counsel for people at Guantánamo and any other U.S. prisoners anywhere in the world. And it’s a particularly outrageous attack because it went after law firms who get the picture, who really understand that what’s going on at Guantánamo is really about fundamental rights, and that’s why I think all these big firms were willing to provide representation in the first place. The other two noteworthy points that Stimson made was, one, he actually read a list of 14 law firms, major law firms in this country, major corporate law firms, involved in the pro bono litigation. And the closest thing that comes to mind is McCarthy, when McCarthy read a list of federal employees who he claimed to be communists. So it’s a McCarthyite tactic that really shows, in my view, some of the legacy of where some of these people in the Bush administration hark back to and would like to see in this world.

So that was one really remarkable thing, which is what I think caused some of the outcry about it. And the second, of course, was trying to undercut the legal representation by saying to the corporate clients of these firms, why don’t you guys stop using these law firms because they’re representing supposed terrorists. And yet another thing is that it wasn’t an off-the-cuff statement. This information about these firms and some of their attorneys representing for detainees in Guantánamo has been in the public domain forever. But Stimson and the others set it up with a Freedom of Information Act request. They then released publicly the 14 law firms they got from their FOIA request. It was a concerted attack—the next day there was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. So it was part and parcel of trying to undercut representation as a fundamental right. And of course it fits within what the Bush administration has been trying to do since the beginning. At the very first, they said that Guantánamo detainees had no right to attorneys, no right to file a writ of habeas corpus, no right to even consult an attorney—nothing. The administration lost on those, although they’re still fighting them. So, they lost on the merits, but then what do they do? They start attacking the legal representation. This is particularly nasty. On the other hand, I think the positive part here was the reaction of the big law firms under attack, which was really strong. The reactions were uniformly one of outrage and not pulling back, and saying we’re going to assert ourselves, that this is an outrage and is really about denying people fundamental rights.

Revolution: First you’ve got Monica Crowley, who’s this notorious conservative and has upheld the Bush regime’s actions at Guantánamo, filing a FOIA request for the names of the law firms representing the detainees, even though this information in fact is public! Then Stimson takes this FOIA request in order to suggest that the attorneys were trying to keep their representation secret. And then he asks who is paying these attorneys, when he knows full well that they’re doing this work pro bono.

Ratner: Right. They did try to make it seem like it came as a FOIA result, etc., when, as you say, anybody could have gone to court, to the Guantánamo cases, and there you have the list of every single attorney. It’s not secret at all, these law firms haven’t tried to keep it a secret. In fact, they are quite proud of it. In fact, some of these firms have told me the best single recruiting they have for getting new attorneys is that they represent Guantánamo detainees, because people consider it an honor to work on these cases. These are considered to be fundamental cases about what the U.S. judicial system’s rights are going to look like, and people feel very strongly about that. And these firms have put in a fortune—they’ve spent a lot of money on each case, millions of dollars spent, and they’re not getting a penny back.

Revolution: There was a letter, which maybe you saw, from four legal organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild, to Bush, which reads, in part: “The threats by Mr. Stimson are not subtle. They imply that these pro bono lawyers are terrorists…These remarks are slanderous, and they violate the free association right of these lawyers and their firms… The administration must not only disavow these remarks, but Mr. Stimson should be publicly admonished and relieved of his duties for making these allegations and threats.”

What are your thoughts on that?

Ratner: Well, I thought that letter was very important. Those are very progressive legal organizations who wrote that letter, but the fact that it was actually picked up by Reuters and other media was quite interesting to me, because it demonstrates that, you know, that there’s a legitimacy out there both to criticism of the Bush administration, as well as that letter calling for the resignation of Stimson, which I think the New York Times also did today, or at least wrote a very harsh editorial, saying that this is not an apology at all. And I agree completely that this is an apology with a gun pointed to your head, basically. But I do think it’s important to understand that this is not an individual act of Stimson’s. This was set up so that, after what Stimson said on Jan. 12, you had on the 13th Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general, attacking the lawyers again—saying that the reason why people are still in Guantánamo is because their lawyers have delayed the government being able to have trials in these cases. So, Gonzales on the one hand distanced himself from the remarks of Stimson, but on the other hand, he attacks the lawyers. And then the next day he attacks federal judges as “activists” in giving rights to prisoners at Guantánamo. So you’re talking about a concerted effort—an effort not just by Stimson but probably something that was led from the top by people like Gonzales. And I think they never expected, to be honest, such strong oppositional reaction. I think they thought this was a U.S. population that still could be intimidated in the same way, as it were, that it was right after 9/11. And I think it’s an indication of the change in the way the people feel about the Bush administration—that essentially no one out there could really defend what the Bush administration had done in this Stimson case.

Revolution: The media were very quick to report that the administration was trying to distance itself from what Stimson said—that he didn’t speak for the administration. But in fact, nothing has really been done so far in regard to calling Stimson on the carpet for what he said, much less remove him from his position. And in fact his conduct is consistent with what the Bush regime has been doing all along, which is to defend their right to detain anyone they say is a terrorist, and to justify torture and other war crimes in the process.

Ratner: Yeah, I think that’s what’s crucial here. The crucial—I mean, obviously Stimson’s remarks are awful and terrible and all this, but in fact they reflect the administration and they reflect a practice since the beginning of this administration—that they don’t want attorneys representing anybody, and they still believe they have the right to detain people forever. And the real issue here is less, to me, what Stimson did say or didn’t say—the real issue is when are they going to give human beings at Guantánamo and other U.S. detention facilities their legal, constitutional and international law rights and stop treating them in a manner that reminds you of the Middle Ages. So, there is no issue to me that Stimson is just the tip of the iceberg, because underneath there is an entire detainee policy that is completely inhuman, immoral and illegal.

Revolution: It’s like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. And meanwhile, the whole thing shifts the debate and terms of discourse even further to the right.

Ratner: Right. They’re still fighting against having attorneys go to Guantánamo. You know, one of our CCR attorneys is having trouble getting to see a client right now. So, yes, they put out these people like Stimson, they gauge what the reaction is, and that’s what we’re talking about. But I do think that in this case, things may have backfired on them, and maybe what’s going on—it’s hard to say—is that as the Bush administration loses popularity, it may be the cabal that’s running it—Bush and others—are getting more desperate and think they can really electrify their base a little bit by these kinds of attacks on a variety of people, including these lawyers, because they’re losing their base. So, they’re getting more desperate, it seems to me, on some level.

Revolution: They are determined—this cabal, as you refer to them—to push through with this entire agenda. And it involves Iraq and Iran and their whole global ambitions, as well as this whole police-state environment they’re creating here.

Ratner: I think that’s right. They still obviously do believe in an unbridled presidential power. They believe they can do anything they want to who they think is a terrorist. But they’ve been forced to pull back on a few issues. But at the same time, they’re still asserting—look, even in the face of the incredible opposition—that they want to escalate the war in Iraq, and are making noises about Iran. So, you know, they’re certainly not to be trusted, and the question is, are they desperate enough that they’ll take measures that are so extreme that they become even more dangerous than they already are?

Revolution: Right. And in connection with that, it does seem that this whole Stimson incident underscores once again the need for people to be standing up, speaking out, protesting against the whole direction in which this society is being propelled—just as many lawyers and others spoke out against Stimson’s remarks.

Ratner: Yeah, I have no issue here. My view is that if you’re going to change this country around, it will be by protest, by hitting the streets—whether it’s around court cases, the policies of the administration, or the administration itself. That’s been only moderately successful so far—getting people out—and there’s a certain quiescence that I don’t care for. But it’s clear to me that every time we’re able to do something—whether it’s a demonstration around impeachment or around the war—that there’s an important impact. So people should keep writing, demonstrating, on campuses and elsewhere across the country. And obviously, the work we do here at CCR we consider crucial, but it actually doesn’t win unless we have the people behind us. And we’re only part of the movement that’s needed—to try to bring us back to some kind of fundamental rights in this country.

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