Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and adjunct professor of law at Columbia University Law School, interviewed by International Socialist Revew:
ISR: 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?
Michael Ratner: 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.