In recent weeks, controversy has erupted over demands that the Obama administration release the names of lawyers working in the Justice Department who once represented or advocated for captured al Qaeda terrorists. But amid the debate, one name has thus far mostly escaped mention: Michael Ratner. Don’t know him? You should. Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the organization that is leading the legal crusade on behalf of the al Qaeda detainees.
The center was founded in 1966 by William Kunstler and a group of radical lawyers. Its name is an Orwellian play on words—implying that the organization’s purpose is to defend our constitutional system when its real objective is just the opposite. As Kunstler once told the New York Times, he considered himself a “double agent” whose goal was “working within the system to bring down the system.”
For more than four decades, the center has been true to this mission. Since its founding, CCR lawyers have represented violent radicals, Communist fronts, cop-killers, and sworn enemies of the United States. But following the attacks of September 11, 2001, CCR made its way into the judicial mainstream. In 2004, the center won a major legal victory when the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in Rasul v. Bush that foreign combatants captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan can challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts. This ruling unleashed a flood of habeas corpus cases, and suddenly CCR found itself coordinating the work of hundreds of pro-bono lawyers from top flight law firms filing suit on behalf of terrorist detainees. According to its website, “CCR has led the legal battle over detentions and conditions at Guantánamo for more than six years, and coordinates the efforts of more than 500 pro bono lawyers” fighting to release Guantánamo detainees in what it terms the “so-called ‘war on terror.’ ”
In addition to playing a coordinating role in over 200 detainee cases, CCR directly represents a number of terrorist detainees. CCR’s current clients include Jose Padilla, the American-born terrorist sent by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to blow up apartment buildings in a major American city; Mohammed al-Qahtani, the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 plot, who would have been on United Flight 93 had he not been turned away by immigration officials at the Orlando airport; and Majid Khan, an al Qaeda operative groomed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for suicide missions against America.
Ratner is a longtime member in good standing of the hard left. He is described in Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side as having “been a leader of the legal brigade of the progressive movement” since “the Vietnam war years.” Mayer wrote that Ratner had “gotten under the skin of foreign dictators and multinational corporations by suing them for human rights violations in the U.S. courts.” But Ratner did not get under the skin of all foreign dictators. He had a soft spot for the regime of Fidel Castro and particularly for Che Guevara. In 1997, Ratner published a book on Che, declaring the Cuban revolutionary a Heroic Guerrilla. Ratner describes his experience of hiking in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains in 1976, following the path of Che, when he came upon a group of Cuban schoolchildren: “Each was holding a handwritten placard, and singing the words written thereon: ‘Seremos como Che.’ ‘We will be like Che.’ Tears streamed down my cheeks, my energy was renewed, and I completed the hike.”
In his book, Ratner wrote evocatively of his love of Che. So while Ratner reviles America’s treatment of terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay, he idolizes the man who created Cuba’s KGB-style political prisons and served as Castro’s chief executioner. I asked Ratner if he had ever worked for Cuban prisoners. “No one’s asked me to do it; I haven’t done it,” he said. Of course, no one asked Ratner to represent Majid Khan, Jose Padilla, Mohammed al-Qahtani, or the other al Qaeda terrorists on CCR’s client list. CCR sought them out. The fact is Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights have made it their business to represent America’s enemies for more than four decades. This was their business during the Cold War, and it is thriving during the war on terror.
The reason Ratner represents so many of America’s enemies is that Ratner believes America is evil. In his book on Che, Ratner wrote:
Che saw the United States as a great evil, and not only because of its attacks on Cuba. He called it a “barbaric civilization,” a “so-called democracy” where U.S. elections merely determine who is to be the jailer of the North American people for the next four years. . . . It is a sentiment that could not be more accurate if said today.
In our interview, I read him this passage and asked whether he still feels that America is evil. There was a pause, and then he said, “I do believe that today.” Surprised, I said, “You do believe that today?” He quickly added, “No, I’m thinking about that.” After another long pause, Ratner finally said: “You know, I think, as I’ve said to you before, America has a lot of practices and policies that I don’t like, that I think are bad. It has a number of things that I like, that I think are good. And my object is to make this country adhere to the law, and that’s what my goal has been, really, throughout my life.” Referring to the quotation, he asked, “What was that, nine, eleven years ago?”—as if 1997 were ancient history. Again, he did not repudiate his writings, but replied, “My best view about what I think of America is what I just told you.”
Ratner is nothing if not consistent. As recently as 2006, in an interview with Socialist Worker Online (yes, such a thing exists), Ratner called America a “police state,” compared the Bush administration to Nazi “storm troopers,” and equated 9/11 to the burning of the Reichstag, which Hitler used to establish his absolute grip on power: “Really, the best analogy for people to understand is the Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933, when the parliament of Germany was burned to the ground. That night, Hitler and the storm troopers gained power. . . . They used the Reichstag fire the same way Bush used 9/11. . . . [T]hat’s really the beginning of the coup d’etat in America.” This is the man behind the campaign to grant the right of habeas corpus to captured terrorists.
Ratner may despise Guantánamo, but it has been a fundraising boon for the CCR. In 2002, the center reported total revenues of $2.4 million. By 2007, that number had doubled, to $4.9 million. But these donations understate CCR’s fundraising prowess. The center has also solicited tens of millions of dollars in “in kind” contributions from more than 600 law firms, which have given their time pro bono to represent Guantánamo detainees as part of CCR’s “Global Justice Initiative.”
In our interview, Ratner described this effort. He explained that in 2004, after the Rasul case opened the door for captured enemy combatants to contest their detention in civilian courts, “we put out a call to other firms across the country . . . to start representing people. And we started the next year [with] probably 100 people, and over the next year got to about 600.” In addition to recruiting attorneys for terrorist clients, he says, CCR helps by “training the lawyers from these firms how to do these habeas cases, and that involves everything, once we got access to the client, from how you deal with your clients [to] what issues you have to be sensitive with Muslim clients.” Ratner adds, “We also set up a ‘Guantánamo listserv,’ ” a confidential online forum allowing “Guantánamo lawyers [to] share their perspectives and thoughts on how the cases are being litigated. And we follow up when there is a new client who needs counsel. We’ll reach out and get the client” and then connect them with a lawyer.
The major law firms working on detainee cases do not downplay their connections to Ratner; to the contrary, many embrace him. One firm listed in CCR’s 2008 annual report as part of its “Global Justice Initiative” is Jenner & Block, where Obama associate attorney general Thomas Perrelli served as managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office. According to Jenner’s website, the firm has worked with CCR, which it describes as “spearheading the coordinated efforts of all counsel” in Guantánamo cases. Jenner and Ratner also share a client: Jose Padilla.
Another firm working with CCR is Covington & Burling, Eric Holder’s law firm for eight years before he became Barack Obama’s attorney general. The firm’s website proudly notes that in 2008 it received the Center for Constitutional Rights’s “Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year” award. According to the American Lawyer, Covington & Burling lawyers spent 3,022 hours on Guantánamo litigation in 2007, more than on any other pro bono effort that year. At an average rate of $400 per hour, that comes to more than $1.2 million in donated legal services. Other well-known law firms working with CCR in its Global Justice Initiative include Morrison & Foerster; Wilmer Hale; Sullivan & Cromwell; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Holland & Hart; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw, Pittman; Shearman & Sterling. And there are many, many others.
It is doubtful that many of the senior partners at these firms are familiar with Ratner or his objectives in the habeas campaign. But in our interview Ratner made no bones about his goals: “For me there’s only two answers for people at Guantánamo or the KSMs of the world. You either try them—on the evidence you have you charge and try them—or you release them.” I asked specifically about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. “It would apply to anybody,” Ratner said.
Ratner is not satisfied with harnessing the American legal system to aid the release of terrorists. CCR is also working with foreign prosecutors to indict top Bush administration officials for war crimes. Ratner explained to me that this was the future of CCR’s litigation effort. “We tried to do it here in various civil cases, suing [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld . . . for torture in Guantánamo,” he said. “But in the end, what we did was we launched a series of criminal cases in Europe, particularly in Germany and France, and now of course we’re cooperating in Spain.” These cases, Ratner said, send a message to our government that “if you’re not going to investigate your own torture program . . . Europe under universal jurisdiction will be able to go forward and do that.”
Ratner has been surprisingly quiet in the recent controversy over the disclosure of which Justice Department lawyers have represented Guantánamo detainees. But a few years ago, when the top Defense Department official in charge of detainee affairs, Charles “Cully” Stimson, questioned the propriety of American law firms representing terrorists, an infuriated Michael Ratner gave a long interview in which he compared Stimson to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Stimson, he said, had employed “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.” The publication where Ratner made those comments? Revolution Newspaper, the self-described “voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA.”
During the Cold War there were Americans devoted to undermining U.S. policy in the struggle with Soviet Communism. Today in the war on terror, there are left-wing attorneys working to undermine U.S. policy in the struggle with violent Islamic extremism. As the story of Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights shows, they are sometimes the very same people.
Marc A. Thiessen, a columnist for the Washington Post, is the author of Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.