Michael Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights , a leading organization in opposing the dismantling of civil liberties under the Bush, and now Obama, administrations.
He spoke with Nicole Colson about the recent raids on the homes and offices of antiwar and socialist activists in Chicago, Minneapolis and North Carolina–and why the Obama administration, despite claims to the contrary, has been disastrous when it comes to promises to protect our civil liberties.
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RECENTLY, ANTIWAR and socialist activists in Chicago, Minneapolis and North Carolina have had their homes and offices raided, and were given grand jury subpoenas. What is your take on these raids? What’s your sense of what the government is after?
THE RAIDS have all the earmarks of a fishing expedition–both the search warrants as well as grand jury subpoenas. They all claimed to be investigating “material support to terrorism,” in particular around both the Middle East and the country of Colombia. It appears to be a fishing expedition because the materials that were authorized to be seized and the subjects about which questions were to be asked were quite broad.
The search warrants were like wholesale seizure warrants. The FBI goes into five or six houses in Minneapolis, two houses in Chicago, some houses in North Carolina and Michigan as well, and seize everything. They take people’s cell phones, they take all the computers out, they take every document out. This broad language in the search warrants purports to allow the FBI to take everything in those offices.
And then the subpoenas, which require people to testify in front of the grand jury, they also are very open ended. Asking for everything people know about certain organizations, phone numbers, associates, friends, etc. So you would think if it was a narrowly tailored prosecution in which they thought there might be real criminal conduct, the focus would be much narrower.
So while it appears from the warrants they might have some suspicion about something (but who even knows if that suspicion is valid), they certainly don’t have very much, because they are going very, very broadly.
It’s something like looking for a needle in a haystack, in which they destroy many lives and chill people’s rights–and there may not even be a needle. And because of that, they are clearly encroaching on the First Amendment rights of people who are doing antiwar organizing and working to change U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and in South America.
There are many problems, but one of the problems here is that the search warrants and subpoenas are so that broad, they cut directly into all kinds of First Amendment activities. So the people in Minneapolis, who were among the main organizers of some of the Republican National Convention demonstrations in 2008, then become the targets of the FBI or the Joint Terrorism Task Force–and their First Amendment activities, and their right to organize and oppose the government are therefore chilled or even prevented all together.
A broad, wholesale attack like this on the antiwar movement and on activists is bad for the people who were directly attacked, and it also tells all of us that the activities we undertake are subject to government surveillance and much more in this case–the actual seizure of the documents and grand jury subpoenas.
So it’s quite serious. It makes you very suspicious because it’s so broad. It was so coordinated, it was across the country, and they don’t really have that much, if anything.
A second problem is the ostensible reason for the search. The various warrants and subpoenas cite the law concerning material support for terrorism. And of course, that’s the material support statute.
A case arguing the unconstitutionality of that statute was recently argued by the Center for Constitutional Rights in the Supreme Court [Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project]. We lost. The Supreme Court, for the first time since 9/11, said advocacy or speech on behalf of an organization on the attorney general’s terrorist list is covered by the criminal statute–the material support of terrorism statute–if that speech is coordinated with, or you work with or have contact with, people in the alleged terrorist organization.
So once an organization is put on the terrorist list, if I only write an op-ed, and if I gather the information from the designated organization or have any contact with anybody there, even if it’s just asking for information, that might be interpreted as “coordination” with them, or some kind of material support for that organization. And there is no due process given before an organization is put on the list. It’s almost impossible to challenge. Oftentimes, placement on the terrorist list is a political decision.
So first you have the Supreme Court decision in June 2010, and then you have these raids a couple of months afterward. It makes you very suspicious that the current government is pushing the boundaries of the material support statute and reading it very broadly.
Organizations are going to be put in fear of any kind of opposition to U.S. foreign policy if there is a claim by the government that there is contact with organizations that are designated terrorists. Domestic American organizations that oppose U.S. foreign policy may well be chilled in their work.
COULD YOU say a little bit more about the way that the material support provision has been used since 9/11? There have been a number of really high-profile cases–particularly of Islamic charities, for example–where no violence was ever alleged to have occurred as a result of the so-called “material support,” so a lot of us on the left have seen this as a broader attempt to whip up support for the “war on terror.”
ONE OF the main uses of the material support statute, I think is to demonize organizations that the U.S. government doesn’t like. Had they had such a statue during the period of the African National Congress (ANC) opposition to the apartheid government in South Africa, they would have labeled that–and that’s how they thought of it in the U.S., under Reagan and before–as a terrorist organization. Any contacts with the ANC of any Americans opposed to apartheid would have been considered criminal.
There are two aspects to this. One is that the government can label, without any kind of hearing or way to challenge it, a foreign organization as a terrorist organization. The other is that any American contact with that organization or support for that organization is prohibited.
This is true even if that support is, as I said, by writings that are at all coordinated; by giving blankets to their hospital; by, according to the case we lost in Supreme Court, wanting to teach the [Kurdistan Workers Party] or the Tamil Tigers about the Geneva Conventions. Wanting to teach people peaceful means of resolving disputes, or wanting to get them to the negotiating table–when Jimmy Carter negotiates questions in the Middle East and he has contacts with Hamas or Hezbollah–those all are now prohibited.
So this statute is the favorite of prosecutors to go after people, because the smallest kind of contact with a designated terrorist organization can be considered material support. It’s an easy way to intimidate, wipe out and jail opponents of U.S. foreign policy, and an easy way to demonize organizations that many would call liberation organizations in other countries.
The provision has been used often. It is a favorite among prosecutors because you have to prove so little. So the Holy Land Foundation, which was the biggest Muslim charity in the United States, was accused of giving money to Hamas, but so indirectly that it’s hard to believe any of the facts in the case–it was giving it to groups that I think even the UN was giving to in Gaza. But somehow, they were supposed to believe or know that those groups were connected to Hamas, which has been put on the U.S. terrorist list.
The statute is used very broadly to say, “Muslims in this country and all their charities, what they’re doing is supporting terrorism.” When in fact, the vast majority of those charities–I obviously don’t know every one, but from what I know–gave aid to organizations they didn’t think were terrorist for starters, or on the list, and, secondly, they were giving humanitarian aid or doing things like teaching the Geneva Conventions.
Read the full interview at Just Left.
Michael Ratner is the author of Guantanamo.