Stanley Cohen (right) in Gaza with one of the two disputed prime ministers of the Palestinian National Authority, Ismail Haniyeh. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
The term "polarizing figure" has become a lazy way to describe politicians, pundits, and media figures for essentially being very loud about mostly superficial things. But there are still a number of people around who fit the definition perfectly. Defense attorney Stanley Cohen is one of those people, capable of simultaneously evoking both absolute hatred and adoration from various parts of society. In fact, he's the only lawyer I've ever come across who has a Haters section on his own website.
Stanley has accumulated a list of clients including Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, and al-Shabaab. Most recently, he's added two new clients to his portfolio: Mercedes Haefer, who's accused of taking part in cyberattacks against PayPal as part of the Anonymous collective, and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and a man accused of acts of terrorism against the United States.
Stanley has been referred to as “the terror lawyer” by conservative US pundit Sean Hannity, a “savage lawyer” by professional anti-Muslim subway activist Pamela Geller, and beat Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein to the coveted title of Worst of the Worst Self-Hating, Israel-Threatening Jews.” At the same time, Stanley has been hailed as something of a champion of free speech and antiestablishmentarianism by internet activists, and for defending the human rights of the disenfranchised.
Stanley was kind enough to let me interview him, and we spoke about his nemesis, his career, and getting hassled by the IDF.
Stanley with the American poet Peter Spagnuolo (left) and Yasser Arafat. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
VICE: Hi, Stanley. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
Stanley Cohen: Sure. So, it's good to know that Eric Holder finally admitted that the US drone program killed four Americans.
Yeah. They already announced those missing four a while ago, so it’s like, "Gee, guys, did it take you two fucking years to figure this out?"
Eric Holder has become something of a nemesis to you, right?
Yeah—fuck Eric Holder. Eric Holder is no different from every other attorney general in recent history. We haven't had an independent, dynamic, enlightened, historical US attorney general since Ramsey Clark. Basically every attorney general down the line has been swallowed up by the political agenda of whoever the president is, and it’s typically worse with the Democrats than even the Republicans. So yeah—Holder is a good team player, unlike, "I Have a Drone," [Obama] who won’t admit it, but I’m sure goes to sleep at night believing he spoke to the creator during the day. Holder is just a petty hack.
In all your work in Israel or Palestine, have you ever actually had an encounter with the IDF?
Yeah, I’ve had encounters at crossings, I’ve had encounters at the Wailing Wall, I’ve had encounters where I was on an investigation and we were avoiding road blocks because I had to get into Tulkarem [the then-Hamas stronghold in the West Bank] at a time when it was basically locked down, so I got a local cab. It was kind of funny—the Palestinian didn't know who I was, but when I said I needed to get to Tulkarem, he said I couldn't get in. So I said, "Look, if you can get me there and get me out of there, there will be a big, healthy tip for you."
Stanley in Gaza in 2012. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
That always helps.
He still didn’t know who the fuck I was at this point. So anyway, we did some off-road driving, got to Tulkarem, met at a client’s family’s house, interviewed the mayor, sat down with some witnesses, and this guy’s mouth dropped. As the interview went on and on, he was like, “Holy shit, I had no idea who you are—this is serious shit.” And then it started to get dark and we said, "Oh, we've got to get out of here because the IDF do raids in Tulkarem at night all the time."
So we jump into the car and we drove into the mountains and did a quick turn coming down. Then, all of a sudden, we were on a little dirt road and we came across a fucking tank, and the tank turned its turret toward us and locked and loaded. And, for some reason—I don’t know; the guy in the turret had to change his socks or take a dump, or something—he turned the other way and went the other direction. So we made it through the mountains to east Jerusalem, where I always stayed, and the driver told me, “I had a great day and learned a lot. But the next time you need a ride, don’t call me.”
I’ve had a thousand encounters. I’ve had bigger battles with Shin Bet [Israel's internal security service] at Ben Gurion airport. One guy said, “If you were Palestinian, I’d take you out back and shoot you in the head. You’re not, but I still might.” There was a screaming match, Shin Bet escorting me to the airplane, taking my computer and saying they’re going to do nefarious searches of my body. I told them I don’t have jack shit. He said, “Well, you’re not going to leave my country.” I told him, “Well good, I’ll do fucking speeches from the airport for the next five years—is that what you want, asshole?” Now I don’t go to Israel anymore; I’m not allowed back in.
You are probably, as you said, the most experienced lawyer involved in terrorism cases. Is the Abu Ghaith [one of al Qaeda's official spokesmen and husband to one of Osama bin Laden's daughters] case your biggest so far?
Well, it depends on what you mean by "biggest." I think the case that had the largest consequences in the world community—which, in those days, weren’t really called terrorism cases—was probably Abu Marzook, who was the political leader of Hamas from 1995 to 1997. That’s a case and a person who was and remains such a critical player in international politics in general—in the Middle East, in the Gulf, North Africa, and now increasingly in central and south African politics. In terms of who’s who, that was certainly the biggest. This is a big case in that it’s the so-called "bin Laden’s son-in-law case," and they get to basically try bin Laden after they murdered him and dress him up like bin Laden in the southern district of New York. It serves a political agenda because it allows the government to say, “See, we can do a trial! We can handle a trial! We’re on top of this stuff!”
Stanley in Gaza with Ahmed Yassin (left) and Ismail Abu Shanab (right), two of the founders of Hamas. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
The Knesset—the legislative branch of the Israeli government—once held a special session about you. Could you tell me about that?
I'd heard from a mole that the Knesset has a political committee that deals with issues like lobbying, PR, and money that goes to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They had a meeting about one of my lawsuits against Israel and apparently we really pissed off a member of the cabinet. The mole conveyed to me that it got quite funny—all the psychobabble shit about me and, you know, how they were going to deal with it.
You're widely known as a defense lawyer for terrorism suspects, but also as a human rights activist. That's something that many people, especially in the US, would find contradictory. What do you think of that?
As a defense attorney, I don't know how you can separate representing political people—which, in my 30-year career, has been thousands and thousands of cases—and challenging the system both in the courtroom and out. If that makes you an activist, then so be it. Whether it's trying to level the playing field through public media and exposure, challenging government conduct and policy, serving as a spokesman for an unpopular message from unpopular people—it's all one big fucking pig fry. And whether it's a stop-and-search case of an African American walking away from Columbia University, who happens to have a PhD, or representing and advising groups that the government claims are at war with the United States, it’s all about activism. You just can’t separate the two.
There was a point where you had to hire bodyguards, right?
Well, I had security for about two months after 9/11. There were some threats—things people perceived as a serious concern. The funny thing about it was that I couldn’t fucking get private security to take the contracts from me, or the clients that wanted to hire them. Al Sharpton and I have had a very contentious relationship over the years, but I remember he reached out to a mutual friend of ours and said, “I know we haven’t always agreed or seen eye to eye, but I really think it’s important that he be protected.” And he was very close with the Guardian Society, which is the Union of Black Police Officers. And they, as it turns out, have a private security investigation firm, so I ended up having off-duty African American cops providing security for me for two months.
Stanley in the Gaza Strip in 1997. Photo by Peter Spagnuolo via
Why didn't you and Sharpton get along?
I was involved in some very serious political battles. Some people thought it was accusations that he was an informant to the FBI, but it really wasn’t about that. I just thought, at the time, that there was a lot of showboating going on in a movement he was involved in, and I thought it was counterproductive and counterrevolutionary. And it created problems, especially the whole Tawana Brawley disaster, and I spoke publicly about it.
Do you find any parallels between your Anonymous cases and the cases in the Middle East that you’re involved in?
Yeah, I do. I think the common strain is that there are movements and individuals. I hate to use the old metaphor, but it's those who choose to stand up and be counted. Most people are comfortable with being passive observers of history. I have a saying that there is no greater crime than the young becoming cheerleaders in the parade of mediocrity, who at a very young age sell themselves short, sell themselves out and start working on their mortgage.
So what are the similarities with these cases in particular?
The common strain between Anonymous and a lot of movements—social, political, and armed struggle movements in the Middle East, in the Third World, and other parts—is the fact that people refuse to be passive participants or observers. People feel obligated to jump into this dirty mud fight and try to direct, focus, monitor, and expose locally, internationally, globally; the world that is theirs to come. Now, obviously, the people on the ground in Gaza, the West Bank, or the refugee camps have very different issues than people in Anonymous.
But there are no more globally important and fundamentally powerful issues over the next 30, 40, or 50 years than the war over cyber space. Who owns it, who controls it, and what’s to become of it. It's the penultimate issue throughout the world, and we have those who have controlled the shit for a very long time trying to figure out how they can maintain the stranglehold on a Brave New World. And we have those young and not so young who say, “Fuck, this is a brave new world and, unlike our grandparents and great grandparents who sold this shit to you or sat back while you stole it, we ain’t doing it.”
Follow Richard on Twitter: @RichardSP86
More interviews with lawyers who take interesting cases: