The Magazine

The Dean of the Gitmo Bar

Meet Michael Ratner, lead terrorist defender.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By MARC A. THIESSEN
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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. 

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