Blogger Glenn Greenwald was named by Forbes magazine in 2009 as one of the 25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media, and by The Atlantic as one of the 25 most influential political commentators. In addition to his regular posts on Salon.com, he has just authored With Liberty and Justice for Some: How The Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (Metropolitan Books). Last month I spoke via phone with Greenwald.
MP: Please expand upon your statement that "there is seemingly no limit to the willingness of the Obama administration to protect itself and fellow political elites from legal consequences."
GG: If you look at the past decade, what we've seen is the most egregious crimes committed by the nation's most powerful and political financial actors, so you've seen the construction of a worldwide torture regime, spying on American citizens without the warrants required by the criminal law, an aggressive attack on Iraq, multiple episodes of obstruction of justice that the Bush Justice Department itself found by the attorney general, and then private sector crimes as well, like systemic fraud that precipitated the financial crisis and fraud and mortgage foreclosures as well, and yet none of those crimes has been the subject of even criminal investigations, let alone accountability.
Instead, the Obama administration in each of those cases has intervened and blocked any form of legal accountability of any kind. What I think that illustrates is that the Obama administration is committed to this broader principle that if you're sufficiently powerful — financially or politically — you are immunized from the rule of law.
MP: You also write that the "watchdog press opposes accountability" and you give examples in the book. Why has this happened? Was it always like this?
GG: I think if you look back at the way in which the media has conceived of itself, we've had some pretty dramatic changes. If you go back, say four or five decades, it really was the case, if you went into journalism, that it meant you were going to be relatively poor and working-class, and probably somebody who was on the outside of political and financial power, and were devoted to the idea of subverting it, providing transparency for it and being a watchdog over it.
Now the nation's leading media stars are really very, very highly paid, high-level employees of the nation's largest corporate conglomerates. They're very much on the inside of political power, a part of it, and so what it has done is really shifted how media stars perceive themselves from watchdogs over power, to spokespeople for it and servants to it. And that's why you see in these cases, whenever there's talk of investigating or accountability for the nation's most powerful people, the media takes the lead in arguing against it because it's basically their class that they are defending.
MP: Tampa is hosting the RNC in nine months — we know there will be a lot of corporations hosting exclusive events shutting out the public. You write about being at the Denver DNC in 2008 and trying to report on AT&T throwing a lavish party for the Blue Dog House Democrats. You were denied access to the building, but you write that it was the perfect symbol for how the Beltway political system functions: "Those who dictate the nation's laws cavorting with those who are elected to write those laws while shutting out the people." Is that what these conventions are about — outside the convention center?
GG: I think so. What happened at the Denver convention was that I had worked more than anything else on the issue of whether the telecom industry would receive retroactive immunity for the laws they broke in participating in the Bush spying program, and I watched the Democratic party join with the Republicans to vest this incredible immunity, and then two months later, when I went to Denver, everywhere I looked, the logo of AT&T was emblazoned all over the convention, on the tote bags, on the walls; they were essentially the sponsor of the Democratic Party which just vested them with this gift. And I think you're going to see the same thing in Tampa with the Republicans. I mean, both parties rely upon the same sliver of corporate and oligarchical funding to sustain them and keep them in power and they in turn provide lavish awards and benefits in return, and that's basically our political system.
MP: Where do you see the hope among our politicians — or do you anywhere, whether locally or nationally?
GG: I think the optimism comes only from the willingness of citizens to stand up and say to those in power and to the elite class that the status quo is no longer acceptable, no longer tolerable, and no longer sustainable. We've seen extraordinary change in the Middle East by citizens banding together and demanding that sort of change there. American citizens are far more resourceful and will have much more opportunities and resources in order to do that, and I think the more you see citizens banding together, especially young people and people who otherwise weren't politically engaged, I think the greater the chances that there will be a response finally to these grievances.
MP: You write in the intro: "those with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever." That's bold.
GG: Look at the last decade and there's no alternative but to conclude that. I mean the idea that no Wall Street executives or Wall Street banks have seen the inside of a courtroom for the 2008 financial crisis, which was probably one of the worst financial crimes of the last century, easily, is really extraordinary. And the fact that this happened at the same time that the United States is building the world's largest and one of its harshest prison states — we imprison more of our citizens than any other country in the world by far — shows that this leniency extends only to financial and political elites. For ordinary Americans it's the exact opposite world of justice, and that's really what the rule of law is designed to prevent.
MP: Where do you see the Occupy Wall Street movement and its satellite protests now?
GG: I think clearly what the attempt is now is to use the full force of the state basically to intimidate and deter people from participating further. I mean, you see these coordinated efforts to simply shut them down, and I think the reason is that people in power know, they've been expecting for quite some time that the financial crisis, the disappearing middle class, this exploding inequality in our society, would produce the kind of citizen unrest and protest and even riots that we've seen in other Western countries with far less serious problems. And they've been planning for it and this is their response, but the grievances are so deep and so entrenched, that I don't think some police actions are going to put a stop to it. If anything, I think it's going to fuel it further because it really underscores what the grievances are in the first place, which is that state power and law are used as shields to protect the powerful and their ill-gotten gains against everybody else, and that's what this attack on peaceful protesters really underscores.