Ramsey Clark for the Defense
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Saddam Hussein's trial resumes tomorrow. One of the lawyers who presented credentials in the Baghdad courtroom last week was a former attorney general of the United States. He wasn't there to help prosecute Saddam for massacring thousands of Iraqis. Ramsey Clark went to Baghdad to help defend the former dictator. Over the past three decades, the rumpled 77-year-old from Texas has defended some of the most notorious people in the world who are widely considered to be war criminals. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:
When you hear that Ramsey Clark volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein, it's hard not to ask a question: Is Ramsey Clark off his rocker or what?
Mr. ABDEEN JABARA (Former President, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee): No, he is not off his rocker.
ZWERDLING: That's Abdeen Jabara. He used to be president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Jabara has known Clark for years; he's worked with him on cases.
Mr. JABARA: I think that history will record that Ramsey Clark was the best of America.
ZWERDLING: Todd Gitlin, what do you think of Ramsey Clark?
Professor TODD GITLIN (Columbia University): What I think of him...
ZWERDLING: Gitlin's a professor at Columbia University. His new book is called "The Intellectuals and the Flag."
Prof. GITLIN: It's something of a mystery that a man of accomplishment would devote himself to the defense of war criminals and tyrants.
ZWERDLING: It's easy to find people who denounce Ramsey Clark. Articles in leading publications have called him names like `a front man for Communists,' `the war criminal's best friend.' Clark was already stirring up controversy back in the 1960s when he was attorney general for President Lyndon Johnson. Go back now to the evening of August 8th, 1968, the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. Everybody at the convention center knows what Clark stands for; he's for schools in the South to desegregate; he's tried to block the FBI from using more wiretaps. When Richard Nixon walks to the podium to pick accept his party's presidential nomination, he blames Ramsey Clark for causing a crime wave in America.
(Soundbite of August 8, 1968, speech)
Former Vice President RICHARD NIXON (Republican Presidential Candidate): And if we are to restore order and respect for law in this country, there's one place we're going to begin: We're going to have a new attorney general of the United States of America.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
ZWERDLING: After Clark left the Justice Department, he seemed to go from controversial to extreme. Here's a CBS newscast on June 3rd, 1980.
(Soundbite of CBS newscast, June 3, 1980)
Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (CBS News): An emotional 40-minute speech by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark was the highlight of the second day of the so-called Crimes of America conference in Iran.
ZWERDLING: Remember the revolution in Iran? Students and others overthrew the shah, whom the US had government had propped up with weapons and money. Now students had seized the US Embassy, and they'd captured almost 70 American hostages. Ramsey Clark showed up to applaud the revolution. The CBS newscast continued.
(Soundbite of CBS newscast, June 3, 1980)
Unidentified Man: Clark said the shah should be tried for his great crimes and that the millions and billions of dollars ripped from the bodies of the people of Iran should be returned and given to the martyrs and the poor.
ZWERDLING: Since then, Clark has flown from one bloody zone to another, and he keeps defending and advising people who Americans generally assume are mass murderers. They include Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; he's on trial for genocide. Clark has reportedly praised him for his, quote, "strength, dignity and honor," unquote. Clark also defended a preacher in Rwanda; he was convicted of leading hundreds of Tutsis to their slaughter. Clark represented the so-called blind sheik in New York, Omar Abdel-Rahman; he was convicted of conspiring to bomb the United Nations and major tunnels. Clark supported them all.
Clark's friends, like Abdeen Jabara, says he takes these shocking cases because he wants to force people to question common assumptions.
Mr. JABARA: I think Ramsey Clark wants to shake people's thinking processes up so that they'll think about these things in terms of the larger impact and the larger world.
ZWERDLING: Clark's own writings reinforce this. Clark says, in effect, `Look at the United States. Our leaders say America's the beacon of democracy, but then they demand the world to do things their way.' He says, `They invade some countries which don't.'
A couple months after the US invaded Iraq, Ramsey Clark gave a speech at the National Press Club here in Washington, DC. He spoke mainly about that war, but he touched on some of the themes that run through all his cases.
(Soundbite of 2003 speech)
Mr. RAMSEY CLARK (Former US Attorney General): This country of ours has committed the most serious act of aggression in its history. It is engaged in a war of aggression without a declaration of the Congress, which the Constitution recommends, without approval of the Security Council of the United Nations, but more significantly, in clear violation of the most important provisions of international law, which seek to end the scourge of war.
ZWERDLING: Clark says America's leaders keep saying that a fair and impartial justice system is the cornerstone of democracy, yet respected groups like Human Rights Watch are warning that they have serious concerns whether Saddam Hussein can get a fair trial. And Clark says, `What gives President Bush and his aides the right to judge Saddam when they're not being held accountable themselves?'
(Soundbite of 2003 speech)
Mr. CLARK: I urge everyone who cares about the integrity of our Constitution to take back the Constitution by insisting that the House of Representatives, which has the sole power of impeachment, process impeachment proceedings now.
(Soundbite of applause)
ZWERDLING: We tried to reach Ramsey Clark; he didn't return our messages.
Some of the people who get angriest at Clark actually support many of his arguments. Todd Gitlin was one of the most famous anti-war activists during the Vietnam War. Today, he teaches sociology and journalism at Columbia and he speaks out against the war in Iraq. Gitlin says it's `lunacy'--that's his word--he says it's lunacy for Ramsey Clark to denounce America's policies while he stands arm in arm with tyrants. And Gitlin says just imagine what people around the world think.
Prof. GITLIN: They think, `Oh, those who oppose American intervention are the friends of Saddam Hussein and of Slobodan Milosevic and of the genocides in Rwanda.' In a way, this is the mirror image of George Bush, `You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists.' And this kind of primitive, either/or thinking is actually a disgrace and a discredit to the very deep and, I think, often extremely thoughtful objection to American foreign policy in the United States as often elsewhere in the world.
ZWERDLING: Clark's supporters say his seemingly outrageous battles will actually help America's image in the long run. They say Clark is proving that some Americans will fight for justice even when it's wildly unpopular. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
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