The future of U.S. law in war on terror after Guantanamo

In a series of related events, prominent Brandeis alumni, faculty and guests discussed the future of American law and morality in the wake of the Bush administration’s detention of terrorism suspects, even in cases where there was no evidence.

The Feb. 2-3 conference, which focused on the Guantanamo detention camp and how recognition of the abuses committed there should be kept alive to prevent the abuses’ recurrence, was cosponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Master's Program in Cultural Production.

In his first public speech since the inauguration of Barack Obama, Michael Ratner ’66, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), reflected on his legal battles against the Bush administration on detainment and torture, and reviewed changes that have been made by the new administration.

He gave Obama high marks for ordering the closure of Guantanamo, as well as the closure of secret Central Intelligence Agency sites used for torture, and praised the new administration for ordering the CIA to comply with the Army field manual for conduct, for suspending the military tribunal system created by the Bush administration, and for discarding the Bush policy of obstructing release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Even so, Ratner warned that Obama had not acted yet on a number of related matters of high concern to civil-rights activists, and recalled that President Bill Clinton failed to deliver on several key human-rights pledges, particularly a promise to end detention of Haitian refugees, many of them HIV-positive, at Guantanamo.

Ratner also cautioned that the Obama administration has not yet ceased the practice of rendition, the transfer of a person from one country to another, and may still allow practices such as isolation and sleep deprivation, which he considers to be torture.

Still, he said, "I have a much better feeling than I’ve had for the last seven years." He called the Bush administration "the worst eight years that I’ve lived through as a civil rights lawyer."

Ratner was one of a small group of lawyers that first took on representation of the Guantánamo detainees in January 2001. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a major victory was won in June 2004. Ratner also spoke on Feb. 3 at a Brandeis Spotlight Forum in Boston’s Old State House.

In 2004, CCR won a Supreme Court decision establishing that Guantánamo detainees can challenge their detention in federal courts. While the Obama administration says it may take up to a year to close the detention facility, "our view is that there is no person currently at Guantánamo who can’t be tried or repatriated," said Ratner. He noted that about 500 of the 750 held there at one time already have been released. Many of those imprisoned were turned in by those looking to claim a reward or to get revenge, and were not involved in terrorism, he said.

Calling himself an "absolute prohibitionist" on torture, Ratner said the CCR is pressing for accountability of those involved in the policy of allowing torture, including lawsuits against former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration.

He criticized Obama and other administration officials for saying, in response to calls for prosecution, that they would prefer to look forward than to look back. He said that "the only way to send a message that this should not happen again in this country … is to prosecute people who were involved in torture."

Marc Falkoff PhD ‘97, who has been a principal lawyer for more than a dozen prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of involvement with terrorism, also participated in the conference, giving a presentation on human rights and literature.

The conference opened with a roundtable discussion on "Memorializing Guantanamo" featuring Julian Bonder, an architect who concentrates on relationships between trauma, memory and public space; Janet Echelman, an artist who specializes in public installation and sculptures; and Ratner. That session was moderated by Mark Auslander, who is assistant professor of anthropology at Brandeis and director of the cultural production program.

Bonder and Echelman cautioned against moving quickly to create a memorial that would keep alive awareness of the human-rights abuses that occurred in Guantanamo.

"There is an urgency and immediacy to turn everything into history and that is distressing when things are still happening," Bonder said. "Having the necessary distance is important… here, I first want to understand what I want to say and to whom I need to say it. … It feels too soon for that."

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