Ramsey Clark: Why I’m Taking Saddam’s Case

“You can’t be sure of how the trial will go,” said longtime Manhattan civil-rights attorney Ramsey Clark, wagging a long, slender forefinger. “But you could say that if it’s properly done, it will be the biggest trial of this century.”

Mr. Clark was talking about the trial of Saddam Hussein, whom he recently signed on to represent before a special tribunal in Baghdad. For the man who has represented Leonard Peltier, the Harrisburg Seven and the Attica Brothers, but also prosecuted war resisters in the Johnson administration-indeed, for the man who, as a young Marine Corps courier, witnessed the Nuremberg trials after World War II-calling it the “trial of the century” was no small thing.

Ramsey Clark was in his office, in a loft on East 12th Street in the East Village, speaking like a law professor across a large slab of a wooden table. He’d just returned a few days before from a visit to Jordan, where he met with other members of Mr. Hussein’s legal team as well as the families of both Mr. Hussein and former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. In the room hung an Salvadoran solidarity poster and a painting by Mr. Peltier. The painting is of an old Native American woman with a single tear running down her cheek; it’s called Big Lady Mountain.

By Mr. Clark’s own telling, his interest in representing the deposed Iraqi leader was inflamed when media reports started coming in of Mr. Hussein’s arrest in a spider-hole hideout in the desert. He said he was “shocked” by the images he saw.

“The savage presentation of [Mr. Hussein], disheveled, with his mouth open, people probing in his mouth, the dehumanization,” he said. “I represented Indian peoples for many years, and I can’t tell you how many Indians I’ve worked with called after they saw the picture and said, ‘That’s exactly the way they treated us.’ And this is hardly the road to peace if you want respect for human dignity.

“I wrote to him a year ago in December, shortly after he was arrested,” he continued. “I’d also written to Tariq Aziz right after he turned himself in April of ’03, because I thought it was essential that they have independent contact immediately to assure their proper treatment. And I was repeatedly turned down as to both.

“I did it because, obviously, these cases are extremely important in terms of history and in terms of reconciliation of peoples, and in terms of belief in truth and justice as a priority over force and violence,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s about addressing the concept of victor’s justice, which is only the exercise of power. If you really want peace, you have to satisfy people about the honor of your purpose.”

Mr. Clark has not been able to meet with Mr. Hussein since he sent his letter.

“There has not been anything approaching adequate contact with him,” he said. “None of his family has seen him; only one lawyer has seen him, and that was in the first half of December-a full year after his arrest. It was by a single person, with soldiers standing by, hearing, with whatever other type of surveillance there might have been.

“And there’s not adequate contact with that lawyer, who’s an Iraqi. So for a defense to be developed, there has to be extensive communication with the principal person whose life it involves.

“He is a decisive, knowledgeable person,” Mr. Clark said, “and has to play a major role in every aspect of choosing a defense team and preparing a defense. The lack of access to him is a major violation. Our Supreme Court has thrown cases out where a person wasn’t given access to independent non-police parties within 48 hours of arrest, within less than 12 hours. Here you’ve got 12 months. That sounds technical, but it’s not technical at all-it’s the essential beginning.”

It’s not that he’s never met Mr. Hussein.

Mr. Clark’s history with the former Iraqi leader dates back to the first Gulf War, when Mr. Clark traveled to Iraq to protest the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign. He spent 14 days chronicling the destruction and later defied sanctions by returning on dozens of aid missions. He met with Mr. Hussein on at least four of these occasions, including a month-long visit just before the March 2003 invasion.

“I’ve met with him I think four times, probably averaged two to three hours at a time,” he said. “In presence he is reserved, quiet, thoughtful-dignified, you might say, in the old-fashioned sense. I’m not a big fan of dignity in the old-fashioned sense of stuffiness or posture.”

Could he see how that might be praising with faint damnation a man who is said to have ordered the deaths of some 300,000 of his own citizens?

“I have long believed that one of the greatest barriers to peace is demonization,” Mr. Clark said. “It has always been necessary in war for soldiers to demonize the enemy. Now, with the mass media saturating the public with perceptions that come from very slim contact with actuality and are heavily influenced by desire and prejudice, we demonize.”

And if other lawyers might blanch at the argument that it was the American media who demonized Saddam-wasn’t he something of a demon to begin with? If it were a simple referendum on Mr. Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds or political dissidents, who could possibly represent him in good faith? But what if the trial of Saddam Hussein is really a referendum on the American campaign in Iraq?

“Demonization is the most dangerous form of prejudice,” Mr. Clark continued. “Once you call something evil, it’s easy to justify anything you might do to harm that evil. Evil has no rights, it has no human dignity, it has to be destroyed. That’s how you get your Fallujas, your Abu Ghraibs, your shock-and-awes.”

And, like many civil-rights lawyers, Mr. Clark believes he’s representing a client in a court that is fundamentally flawed.

“A tribunal that doesn’t meet the standards of international law can do enormous harm. International law requires first that a tribunal be created by legal authority, by pre-existing legal authority,” he argued. “That’s referred to as competence. After competence comes independence-it can’t be subject to political power. And finally, it has to be impartial. If it’s not impartial, what’s the point? Why don’t you just go ahead and say ‘Hang him’ instead of this ruse?

“Now, the present Iraqi court meets none of those standards. It was a creation of the U.S. military occupation, the so-called governing council, which was appointed by the U.S. And who becomes the first judge of the court? Chalabi’s nephew. I mean, suppose he’s the most honorable person in the world, this nephew? Is it really conceivable that that’s the person that ought to be judge in a world as big as this? So you don’t have independence, because everything depends on what the U.S. does for the court: financing, training, selection and everything else. You don’t have competence, because it’s not legal. And you don’t have impartiality, as far as can be told from the appearance.

“The only existing court that is competent and independent and impartial is the International Criminal Court, which came into existence July 1, 2002. It’s a court the U.S. opposed. It’s a court the U.S. tragically weakened, but it’s been approved by more than 120 countries.

“The judges were appointed not by the U.S., but the Iraqis, and after the new government comes to power, they will have to be reconfirmed,” said Michael Scharf, a human-rights lawyer at Case Western Reserve who has helped train Iraqi judges, when Mr. Clark’s claims were put before him. “Not only that: The judges who I work with are extremely independent people. They have no particular love for the United States. These are people who were chosen for their expertise and independence.”

Mr. Clark is 77 years old, stooped and slender. He was wearing New Balance sneakers and a worn blue button-down shirt tucked into a pair of wool or polyester pants that might have dated from his early political career. He has wide-set eyes, a bit like a crawfish. And to many, his movements are just as mysterious-sideways, quirky, puzzling.

“Ramsey is a mystery,” said Melvin Wulf, an old colleague who shared a law practice with Mr. Clark during the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, in an earlier interview. “I saw him every day, but I didn’t know him any better at the end of five years than I knew him on the first day. He plays himself very close to the vest, consults with no one except for himself.”

Outside the room, the office manager, Ben Cheney, brother of the slain civil-rights activist, typed at a keyboard. A few unlikely magazines- The New Yorker, Gourmet, Opera News-sat in a stack in the waiting room for visitors. Like some small-town doctor’s office, there were no visitors and the office was quiet-nothing that would suggest that this was the home away from home of one of the most controversial attorneys in the United States.

It all started in the last hoary week of 2004, when Mr. Clark jetted over to Jordan for a conference with 20 or so other attorneys on Dec. 28 to start forming their strategy.

Reaction to Mr. Clark’s trip was swift and certain across the political spectrum. On the right, bloggers for Web sites like RightNation declared that he should be “tried for sedition and treason.” The New York Sun accused him of losing all “credibility when it comes to claiming to be for peace.” Even some of his left-wing comrades rolled their eyes when they heard that he’d signed on to represent a man who had allegedly ordered 300,000 political killings.

“I do think that Saddam, like anybody else, does have a right to a fair trial and a competent lawyer. I’m just not sure why Ramsey Clark needs to do that,” said Leslie Cagan, a longtime peace and justice activist. “Personally, I wish he didn’t do some of those things, because he is one of the few public well-known leftists in this country, and it does make our work harder sometimes.”

Conservatives loathe Mr. Clark, but even staunch progressives don’t always know what to make of him, and some of his closest friends say he can’t be easily defined: Is he a valiant “dissenter” in the tradition of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, as his friend Victor Navasky suggested? Or is he an old ideologue, as others have charged, who is driven above all by his ties to a Communist splinter group called the Workers World Party? Is he a profile in courage, or a study in eccentricity?

Perhaps predictably, Mr. Clark presents himself as neither. A rangy Texan with a down-home Southern drawl, he seems to move to his own unapologetic drumbeat.

He is not without supporters, including some colleagues who argued that Mr. Clark will provide Mr. Hussein with a competent defense, a necessary component of a fair trial.

“[Mr. Clark] has a very good point: The international legal issues are compelling in some ways,” said Alan Dershowitz, who has worked both with and against Mr. Clark on a number of cases. “I think it has to be perceived as a fair trial, and Ramsey’s being involved increases the chances that it will be perceived as a fair trial, because he is a very good lawyer-very smart and very tough.”

Mr. Clark is used to being in the center of the storm. Over the years, he has become a fixture of national and international crime scenes, taking on the kind of thorny cases that have earned him comparisons to the crusading civil-liberties lawyer Clarence Darrow on the one hand-and to Benedict Arnold on the other.

“I think he seems to have some kind of inner compass that tells him that this situation is unfair, and because of that we have to get involved in it,” said Abdeen Jabara, an old friend and lawyer who formerly ran the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who is as principled in his beliefs to fight for the underdog.”

Long before he joined Saddam Hussein’s defense team, before he became the mascot of the anti-Establishment, Ramsey Clark was himself a pedigreed member of the political elite. Born into an influential Texas family, he came from a long line of lawyers who moved effortlessly within the highest levels of law and government. His maternal grandfather was a member of the Texas Supreme Court; his paternal grandfather was president of the Texas Bar Association. His father, Tom C. Clark, was a law-and-order lawyer with close ties to Lyndon B. Johnson. At Mr. Johnson’s urging, President Harry S. Truman named the elder Mr. Clark his Attorney General in 1945. Four years later, Mr. Truman appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Early in his life, the young Ramsey rebelled at least twice against these Clark family precedents. He tried to join the Marines when he was 13, on Dec. 8, 1941, “and it probably would have been pretty dangerous,” he laughed.

“As far as I can tell, I’ve always had a fierce opposition to violence,” he said. “I can remember when I was in fifth or sixth grade, the subject of capital punishment came up. And I was shy and quiet and rarely said much, but I really got upset and I just was passionately against it.”

But when he was 17, he did drop out of high school-against his father’s wishes-to join the Marine Corps and fight in World War II.

Several years later, he defied his father again when he chose to go to the more progressive-minded University of Chicago Law School rather than Harvard Law.

Following law school, Mr. Clark headed back to Texas and appeared, at least on the surface, to return to the path his father and grandfathers had carved out before him. He married his college sweetheart, Georgia Welch, and went to work for the family’s Dallas law firm. He stayed there for 10 years, specializing in antitrust work, until, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy made him an Assistant Attorney General in brother Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department.

Mr. Clark arrived in Washington as the Justice Department was taking on a bigger role in enforcing civil rights.

He roved the South as part of Robert Kennedy’s “riot squad” and ultimately helped to draft the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“I went in ’61, and because I was from Texas I could pass, so I was used extensively in the South,” he said. “I was in charge of supervising the desegregation of all public schools in ’62 in the South. There were only five, but it was a big job-doing just one of them was a big job. You had to worry about children being beat up, their homes being firebombed. It seemed incredibly important, exciting and a privilege to be involved in that.”

His outspokenness and sharp positions-from his support of civil rights to his opposition to wire-tapping and the death penalty-ultimately earned him the nickname “the Preacher” among his Justice Department colleagues.

“[Ramsey Clark] was liberal, though he was much more restrained than he is today,” recalled Nicholas Katzenbach, who worked alongside Mr. Clark for some six years, first as Deputy Attorney General and then as Attorney General. “Still, I think he was far more liberal than his dad.”

Indeed, Mr. Clark bumped squarely against his father’s own, more conservative legal judgments several times during his years in the Justice Department. Most notably, when Johnson appointed him Attorney General in 1967, one of his first steps was to drop the case against Judith Coplon, a Justice Department clerk who had been charged during the early McCarthy days with passing secrets to her Soviet lover. Mr. Clark’s father had brought the case when he was Attorney General.

“It seemed to me a quite fascinating thing to do,” said Mr. Navasky, who became close friends with Mr. Clark in the late 1960′s while writing the book Kennedy Justice. “Ramsey was appointed under the cloud that he got the job [of Attorney General] because his family was Texas buddies of the Johnson family. But I came to the conclusion, both from my interviews and what he did in the Justice Department, that he was a kind of civil-libertarian Attorney General, which is very unusual.”

This civil-libertarian streak didn’t always go over well in the Johnson cabinet, however. During his two years as Attorney General, Mr. Clark found himself at odds with the administration over everything from wire-tapping to prison reform to the Vietnam War.

“President Johnson knew I [opposed the war in Vietnam] before he appointed me Attorney General,” Mr. Clark said. “And he didn’t put me on the National Security Council, which every Attorney General before me had been on and every Attorney General since me had been on. He would call me over once in a while to some meeting on the war when he wanted an extreme position, and I remember one breakfast, the question was whether to bomb north of a famous parallel, I can’t remember which one. And the guys were arguing “yes-no-yes-no” as to whether you could bomb north of the line, and when it came to me I said, ‘I don’t think you can bomb on either side of the line.’ Because bombing is just killing people, and you didn’t know who the hell you were killing-you were killing civilians. It was just a shameful, sick thing.”

When Richard Nixon denounced Mr. Clark in a campaign speech in 1968, Johnson reportedly deadpanned, “I had to sit on my hands so I wouldn’t cheer it.”

But Mr. Clark said his relationship with Johnson was friendly.

“I never had any real conflict with him. But he [did] say to me one time, ‘Some people think you’re destroying the Democratic Party.’ And I said, ‘I’m not even in politics, I’m just doing the law.’”

Mr. Clark never spoke out publicly against the administration, and he never resigned, despite his apparent misgivings about Vietnam.

“You know, I had a choice of resigning,” Mr. Clark recalled, “and it’s something I considered-it’s something I thought was important and respected. But I also thought what I was doing was important-was more important in the sense of its direct impact on lives. And I saw an environment around me in which everything I had been trying to do would be swept away. I already felt that the civil-rights movement after the Watts riots in ’65 was in deep trouble. So I couldn’t see giving up on that. And I had no role in the Vietnam business, because I wasn’t even on the Security Council.”

Some of Mr. Clark’s colleagues have suggested that he is still doing penance for this period of his life-in particular, for prosecuting war resisters like Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

“Standing by, being Attorney General during the Vietnam War without resigning, is not a particularly heroic position to have taken,” said his old colleague, Mr. Wulf. “I sometimes speculate-and this is absolute speculation-that what he’s doing is a kind of atonement for having been Attorney General for Lyndon Johnson at the time of the Vietnam War, and for having in fact initiated the indictment against Dr. Spock and the others.”

As in most cases, Mr. Clark was as unapologetic about his indictment of Spock as he has since become about his Johnson administration apostasy.

“I personally authorized the case against William Sloane Coffin, who came down to marry our son a few years later. I visited him and stayed in his home in ’69, at Yale. Dr. Spock I became very close friends with. And I really haven’t had regrets about the case. I think the government has the duty to protect laws that it believes are constitutional, and I believe the Selective Service Act was constitutional.”

Still, there’s no question that Mr. Clark veered sharply leftward after his Johnson years. Beginning in the early 1970′s, Mr. Clark took a string of headline-grabbing “movement” cases, amassing a docket that read like a Who’s Who of the decade’s radicals and revolutionaries. In 1973, he defended the Harrisburg Seven, a group of peace activists who were accused, among other things, of plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger. One year later, he joined famed radical lawyer William Kunstler in representing two of the Attica Brothers who had been accused of killing a prison guard. Around the same time, he also launched an upstart campaign for U.S. Senate against New York Republican Jacob Javits. (At the state Democratic convention in 1974, Frank Serpico nominated him and Attica Brother Herbert X. Blyden seconded it.) Running as a Democrat, he argued for a 50 percent cut in the defense budget and refused to take contributions above $100. Mr. Navasky managed the operation.

During the next two decades, Mr. Clark began taking on clients who hovered further and further on the political fringes, clients who were not merely controversial but downright incendiary. He often framed these cases in the old language of civil rights, but these clients were hardly left-wing “cause” clients in the traditional sense (though there were some of those as well). For instance, he took on the case of Karl Linnas, an alleged former Nazi. And he defended-and supposedly befriended-Lyndon LaRouche, the political-cult guru. In the early 1990′s, Mr. Clark represented Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb general who was indicted on war crimes. More recently, he gave legal advice to Slobodon Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian president who was also charged with war crimes. Now, of course, there’s Saddam Hussein.

Taken together, these clients make up quite a rogues’ gallery, and some of Mr. Clark’s friends and colleagues have been almost as confounded by his legal choices as his critics. To help explain, they have dreamed up a raft of different theories. On the one side are those who believe that Mr. Clark is, above all, a civil libertarian in the Clarence Darrow tradition. To these friends, he is a hero, albeit at times an eccentric one.

“He’s represented a lot of bad guys. I would say bad guys are entitled to a lawyer. Dracula should have a lawyer, but it’s not going to be me,” said Michael Steven Smith, a New York City attorney and author. “It’s probably not a position taken by most movement lawyers, but it’s still a principled position.”

But other friends and colleagues have said they suspect he is driven primarily by ideology, and not just the standard lefty ideology.

“I support many of the causes he supports, but I also vehemently disagree with some of the choices he’s made, because I perceive him as thinking that any enemy of the United States is a friend of his, and I think that leads him into representing people he should not,” said Beth Stevens, an attorney who represented a group of Bosnian Muslim women who sued Mr. Karadzic in 1993.

And yet for a man who sticks to certain basic principles of justice, even when the circumstances of the world seem to be pressing their defense to the point of absurdity, Mr. Clark had a deceptively simple answer for the choices he’s made.

“You know, we tend to demean here the idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty, and most people are going to chuckle when you say that in connection with a case like Saddam Hussein,” said Mr. Clark, responding to his critics. “But the main meaning is that truth is hard to find. You don’t really know, you have to search for it-you have to inquire diligently, be very skeptical.”