In a recent appearance on CBS Face the Nation former NSA head Michael Hayden described NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as someone who had committed “treason.” Statements of this kind have unfortunately become commonplace in the US where those who expose flagrant criminality are demonized while the very criminals who carry out the most reprehensible illegal acts are honored. It’s important to highlight the historical conditions that gave rise to this stark disparity, at least if there’s to be any concerted effort to reverse this phenomenon. Glenn Greenwald’s devastating indictment of contemporary America’s “two-tiered” “justice” system With Liberty and Justice for Some stands out as an indispensable contribution to this struggle. Written with the precision and insight necessary to assess the utter depravity of elite lawlessness, Greenwald offers a thorough critique of elite conceptions of the rule of law. Under the current administration (and its predecessors) the rule of law basically amounts to a blunt instrument to bludgeon the powerless and the poor. Alongside the severely punitive measures Washington and its corporate backers impose on the powerless is a culture of impunity for those in the highest positions of economic and political authority. Greenwald identifies the origin of this pernicious culture in Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal. It was here that an overt cultural precedent was set whereby high political officials were free to commit crimes without any fear of legal consequences. In short, Washington elites were granted “a license to break the law.” This license was granted despite the fact that Nixon “committed serious felonies.”
The impunity that accompanied Nixon’s departure from office was then ingrained as a defining characteristic of political power in the US soon to be replicated in George H.W. Bush’s pardon of top Reagan administration officials for their sponsoring of terrorist atrocities in Nicaragua, Bill Clinton’s termination of any inquiry into credible allegations that Bush Sr. “illegally supplied Saddam Hussein with large amounts of money, weapons technology, training, military intelligence, and … nuclear components,” and Barack Obama’s pathetic mantra that we should “look forward, not backwards,” when confronted with the task of investigating the worldwide torture regime of Bush Jr. Incidentally, Greenwald notes that President Obama’s refusal to investigate Bush Jr.’s torture regime not only evinces a contempt for basic norms of accountability but represents an egregious crime in itself. Citing the Third Geneva Convention which legally obligates political leaders to “search for persons alleged to have committed [torture],” and to “bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts,” Greenwald concludes “a criminal investigation of torture allegations is thus mandatory.” Obama’s “looking forward” slogan is therefore “a new violation of the law separate from the original acts of torture.” These inconvenient facts reach new levels of hypocrisy when juxtaposed with the Obama administration’s unprecedented assault on whistleblowers from Thomas Drake, to John Kiriakou, to Chelsea Manning (a whistleblower who Obama publicly claimed “broke the law” long before he was convicted in a court.)
Apart from assertions of elite immunity, the executive embrace of political assassinations, indefinite detention and illegal spying is also highlighted in this text. The role of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies in carrying out illegal spying against American citizens offers the harshest commentary on the dangerous unity between corporate and state power, a marriage whose destructive effects we are currently witnessing in newspapers across the world thanks to the courageous actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. It’s difficult to overstate the sea change these revelations have triggered not only in circles of power but at the grassroots level as well. Many Americans are coming to realize what was recognized by federal judge Vaughn Walker in 2006. Judge Walker chose not to dismiss a lawsuit brought against AT&T by its customers writing that “AT&T cannot seriously contend that a reasonable entity in its position could have believed that the domestic dragnet was legal.” Despite this clear legal precedent zero telecommunication corporation executives faced jail time for their crimes. This lack of accountability was made possible after the telecommunications industry mobilized an army of lobbyists to essentially purchase the legislative branch. Their contributions were rewarded in the form of retroactive immunity for all the crimes they carried out in this program.
The criminality that permeated the everyday operations of the national security state took on a more explicit class-based character in the management of the US economy. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this “two-tiered” “justice” system in the realm of economics can be observed in comparing the 2008-2009 financial bailout of AIG with the bailout of the auto industry. In the case of AIG Washington covered 100% of its debts. Additionally, Goldman Sachs, one of AIG’s creditors , was projected to lose an estimated $20 billion if AIG collapsed. Washington could have lessened the cost of the bail out by using its economic leverage to force Goldman to offer a discount on AIG’s debt. Instead of doing this it bailed out both AIG and Goldman using the rationale that they wouldn’t dare interfere in a contractual agreement between two private entities. In sharp contrast to this policy of non-interference in the contracts of financial elites the US government conditioned the bail out of the auto industry on guarantees that workers in the United Auto Workers union would agree to “massive reductions in contractually stipulated benefits.” Double standards of this kind led Greenwald to conclude that “the sanctity of contract rights shields the entitlements of financial elites but is no barrier to forcing ordinary Americans to give up vested rights upon pain of losing their jobs.” The Obama administration’s response to the housing crisis unfolded in a similar fashion as home foreclosures skyrocketed and banks seized property without a hint of accountability or remorse.
The core ideology of this state-corporate structure is embodied in Washington’s passionate hatred of domestic and international law not only in practice but also in theory. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a minimal respect for elementary morality failing to pause in shock upon reading about how the Obama administration coerced the Spanish and British judiciary to terminate its criminal investigations into Bush-era torture. Upon receiving news that the British High Court was investigating the Guantanamo Bay torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed the Obama administration literally threatened the UK as follows: “if the British court disclosed the facts of Mohamed’s torture, US intelligence agencies would no longer pass on to Britain any information about terrorist plots aimed at British citizens.” To put it plainly, the Obama administration threatened to allow terrorist attacks to take place against British citizens unless the details of Bush administration gangsterism was successfully buried. After submitting to the Obama administration’s threat and agreeing to conceal the details of Binyam’s torture, a torture which included genital mutilation, the British High Court lamented “if we restored the redacted paragraphs [detailing Mohamed’s torture] , the United States government … could inflict on the citizens of the United Kingdom a very considerable increase in the dangers they face at a time when a serious terrorist threat still pertains.” Outside of Obama’s drone assassination campaign, a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unambiguous example of international terrorism as defined in the US Code (violent acts designed to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction …”)
As eye-witnesses to this systematic abuse of power and elite criminality, it’s quite easy to become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness, that the consolidation of illegitimate authority has so severely damaged American society and its institutions that its life-shattering effects are irreversible. With 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the prison population, the American penal state imbues these sentiments with a frightening degree of substance. As Greenwald notes in his moral condemnation of the draconian criminal “justice” system imposed on those without the wealth or privilege to purchase legal immunity “the American justice system has become a weapon to control, exploit, and profit off vast numbers of American citizens. That the victims of this exploitation are disproportionately the poor and the powerless makes it all the more repugnant.” It is precisely Greenwald’s acknowledgement of these “repugnant” realities that ranks With Liberty and Justice for Some as one of today’s most consequential judgments of an entire culture of power that deserves the death penalty it so callously enforces against the weak. For this reason, this text is an especially important read with lessons that carry serious implications for our collective survival.