‘Has Our Country Gone Just Mad?’

CounterSpin re-aired a classic interview with Michael Ratner on the May 20, 2016, episode.


Michael Ratner (Photo: Witness to Guantanamo)

Michael Ratner: “Has it just gone mad, that we can look at pictures of Abu Ghraib, trace it back to the White House, and then say elevate this guy?” (Photo: Witness to Guantánamo)


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Janine Jackson: Michael Ratner, who passed away last week at the age of 72, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, investigated, defended and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses around the world. He didn’t inspire hundreds of lawyers because he won cases, but because he saw law as an instrument of justice.

Ratner brought the first challenge under the War Powers Resolution Act to the use of US troops in El Salvador, he prosecuted US officials on behalf of Nicaraguans murdered by the Contras, and he made CCR the first human rights organization to stand up for the rights of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. His work will live on.

Here’s Michael Ratner interviewed by CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall in November 2004 on the occasion of Alberto Gonzales’ nomination to be US Attorney General.

George Bush (left) announcing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. (photo: White House)

George Bush (left) announcing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. (photo: White House)

Steve Rendall: Since George W. Bush’s announcement on November 10 that he was nominating his presidential counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to replace outgoing US Attorney General John Ashcroft, the nomination has faced surprisingly little scrutiny from Democrats or the media. This should be surprising, as Gonzales is responsible for advising Bush that Geneva Convention restraints on treatment of enemy prisoners are obsolete, for contributing to a memo advising the president that torturing alleged Al Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad may be justified, and for defending the current US practice of detaining alleged enemy combatants without access to lawyers or courts.

Joining us now is one of the few strong critics of the Gonzales nomination. Michael Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is suing to force the Bush administration to grant hearings to detainees held at Guantánamo Bay. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Michael Ratner.

Michael Ratner: Thank you for having me.

SR: Michael, you’re quoted in the November 22 edition of Time magazine saying, “I think in some ways Gonzales is more dangerous than Ashcroft…. The person who really took the US outside the law was Gonzales.” Considering Ashcroft’s reputation, those are strong charges. Flesh them out for us a little bit, if you will.

MR: Well, it’s hard to believe, a little bit, on the surface, because at first, you know, Ashcroft was really a lightning rod for violation of constitutional rights in similar kinds of activities. But when you look at what really happened, Ashcroft was an outsider here on what I consider the key issues, the three key issues being torture; secondly, the use of military commissions; and, third, the indefinite detention of people at Guantánamo. Ashcroft played much less of a role than Alberto Gonzales, the president’s attorney.

It was Gonzales who is really, in my view, a key player here. And focusing on just one of those three aspects, the key document he wrote was January 25, 2002, and that said we should not apply Geneva to the people picked up in Afghanistan and taken to Guantánamo. And the reason he did that is remarkable, and it really is why I say that Gonzales and his legal memos paved the road to Abu Ghraib. Because what he said in that memo is, lookit, if we apply Geneva, then we might be subject to war crimes prosecutions under United States law—the “we” being the president on down.

And war crimes prosecutions apply to people who violate the Geneva Conventions. And so Gonzales says, someone coming down the line may say we are treating people inhumanely. In other words, it’s in their heads already that they’re going to treat people inhumanely in coercing them, and he says that. He says, our interrogation will be limited by Geneva, and someone’s going to come around and say we might be charged with war crimes. Well, what’s the best way to defend ourselves against war crimes? The best way is to simply say Geneva Conventions don’t apply, therefore we can’t be charged with violating Geneva Conventions, therefore we can’t be charged with war crimes.

The point is that it’s Gonzales who opens the door to saying, we can treat people inhumanely, we can do it outside of law, and that is what eventually got transferred from Gitmo, Guantánamo, over to Abu Ghraib, when we so-called Gitmo-ized the prisons in Iraq. So this guy, to me, has nothing to do with law, and everything to do with abuse and torture of people around the world.

SR: Michael, you just touched on the reason, as reflected in these memos, why the White House was so worried about the Geneva Conventions. And just to clarify one more time, it wasn’t really about the Geneva Conventions per se, they were more worried about a domestic US law.

MR: I think that’s right. I mean, Geneva really says that you can’t treat people inhumanely. US law then says, anyone who violates that provision of Geneva can be tried for war crimes in the United States. So Gonzales is looking at this, knowing, obviously—this is January 25, 2002—knowing they’re probably already treating people inhumanely, and that they’re worried about war crimes prosecutions, and they have to give a cover to the guys actually abusing people and torturing people. And so what they do is, the cover is, let’s just say Geneva doesn’t apply, and therefore we can’t be prosecuted criminally.

SR: Just to give one example of media skittishness around the Gonzales story, one of the Gonzales memos dubs certain parts of the Geneva Conventions “quaint.” The New York Times mentioned that quote, the “quaint” quote, in a November 11 report that ran with a sidebar including the entire “quaint” passage. Though the Times got the story right, the next day it ran a correction, skittishly apologizing for not including the entire quote twice in the previous day’s paper.

Elsewhere in the coverage, in a November 11 column on WashingtonPost.com, Dan Froomkin surveys coverage of Gonzales and finds most top media outlets began their reports by stressing Gonzales’s Hispanic ethnicity and his closeness with the president, rather than his controversial legal views. What are your thoughts about the Gonzales coverage overall?

MR: Well, I think that the coverage has been awful, absolutely awful. I mean, the two main points being he’s Hispanic and, secondly, he’s a close confidante of the president, and third probably his humble beginnings, saying he’s someone who we should make attorney general. Unfortunately, and very unfortunately, the coverage reflects what seems to be a growing position in the Democratic Party. So there was an article in the New York Times saying the Democrats, while they may have some hard questions or may look at Gonzales, essentially his confirmation is going to go through, and they’re saving their powder for when they get a right-wing guy in the Supreme Court and they want to oppose that.

To me, it’s a combination of the coverage and an utter failure of the Democrats to recognize what’s going on here. What we’re doing is, we’re basically elevating a guy who took us off the page of Geneva and put us on the page of torture. That’s what we’re doing. We’re rewarding somebody who went outside the law and outside the bounds of what we consider civilization in our society. Just remarkable to me, and remarkable to me that that isn’t the focus of both the coverage in the papers as well as of the Democrats. Even if the Democrats were to lose this fight, this is a fight that is about core values in our society and about the rule of law.

SR: Though you’ve been quoted as a critic of Gonzales in several news stories—perhaps more in international media than in US media—you recently tried to place an op-ed column about Gonzales in a number of newspapers around the country. Tell us about that.

MR: Well, I wrote an op-ed that really went through this memo and said, what are we doing here, elevating someone who was involved in promoting abuse that led to torture at Abu Ghraib? And I sent it to really scores of media outlets, the usual ones that I sometimes get published in, the less progressive ones that I don’t get published in often, but I usually get my op-eds picked up. I never even got back a response, not even one, nothing, blank. Nobody was willing to take it on, no one was willing to frontally take on Gonzales and even print a strong opinion with maybe an alternate opinion.

So we’re really talking about a silencing of dissent on this particular nomination. And it’s not just in the media. You know, when you saw people like Senator Schumer come out after his nomination saying, well, I think that, words to the effect that it’s probably going to be okay, you just have to say to yourself, has our country gone just mad? Has it just gone mad, that we can look at pictures of Abu Ghraib, trace it back to the White House, and then say elevate this guy?

Janine Jackson: That was Michael Ratner speaking with CounterSpin’s Steve Rendall in 2004.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.