In our modern era of political "analysts" who are paid to scream mindless talking points written by D.C. thinktanks on slick TV sets, Glenn Greenwald is a reasoned laser beam, armed with copious citations and his experience as a constitutional and civil rights attorney. Though he's often hailed by the left, his columns are dense and unsparing of Democrats and Republicans alike. Greenwald is a graduate of NYU Law and currently splits his time between New York City and Rio De Janeiro, where he lives with his boyfriend.
Greenwald is also the author of four books, most recently With Liberty And Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used To Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. He will be speaking about his book with Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi at 7 p.m. tonight at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO. Advanced tickets are sold out but a few will be available at the door.
So your new book is essentially about a two-tiered justice system. Is that a correct paraphrase, more or less? Yeah, it's actually a multi-tiered justice system but the argument is basically that one's treatment within the justice system is dependent upon who you are, what your status is and power is rather than what you've actually done, which is really the antithesis of what the rule of law is supposed to protect.
You point to Ford's pardon of Nixon as the real break in the new era of a multi-tiered system. Especially Ford's great quote that the "law is a respecter of reality." But isn't he sort of sadly correct in that wealthy folks have always had more support and rich people have always gotten away with things they shouldn't have? Sure, there have always been advantages to being rich and powerful within the justice system and within every other aspect of American political life. The radical difference that the Ford pardon of Nixon ushered in was it was really the first time that explicit arguments were made to justify the suspension of the rule of law. In the past, whenever the rich and the powerful get advantages in the justice system it was considered to be a breach of, or violation of, this principle that we continue very vigorously to affirm even though we violate it, which is that justice is blind and that we are all equal before the law.
What Ford did was really, for the first time, expressly renounce that principle. He essentially changed it to say that while law is no respecter of persons, it is a respecter of reality. Meaning that if it's too divisive or too disruptive—in the judgement of political leaders—for a powerful political official to be held accountable under the law when he gets caught committing crimes, then the rule of law can be suspended. Then we believe that powerful people are not subjected to the rule of law but are exempt from it. It was really this set of justifying rationale that became normalized and led to several decades worth of similar arguments about why the highest level political officials and then financial officals should be shielded from accountability when they break the law.
Do you think that the United States, being the wealthiest country on earth, adheres to this multi-tiered system of justice through its foreign policy decisions? I think that the mentality that I just described was pioneered in the realm of international relations. We have long espoused all kinds of principles that we've insisted on exempting ourselves from. In the early 1980s, for example, the United States was sued in the international court by Nicaragua because the CIA was lining its harbor with bombs and killing a lot of its civilians. The court ruled in favor of Nicaragua and against the United States and entered a judgement, which the United States then used its veto power at the UN to prohibit from being enforced. If you go back even further, if you look, for example, to what the United States said at the Nuremberg Trials, which were convened after World War II. Robert Jackson was the lead prosecutor—he used to be the Attorney General under Harry Truman. Jackson said the kingpin crime that was committed by the Nazi defendants—the war criminals that were on trial before the tribunal—was not genocide or erecting concentration camps or ethnic cleansing or anything like that. The kingpin crime, Jackson said, was the act of aggressive war, which is what enabled all the other crimes and that the only way that the Nuremberg trial would have validity going forward is if its principles applied not only to the defendants on trial but to all the nations here assembled. Meaning the United States and its allies.
Of course, the United States is repeatedly engaged in all kinds of aggressive wars, including probably the worst example: the 2003 attack on Iraq. The idea that the leaders who were responsible for that aggressive war should be held accountable—the way that we promised at Nuremberg they would—is just inconceivable in American political discourse. We don't accept the idea that our political leaders should be held accountable under the law of foreign relations and that has certainly seeped into domestic law enforcement and American justice as well.
Nate Silver wrote a piece in the Times discussing Obama's chances in 2012 and he says almost offhandedly that his foreign policy is considered a "success," but that he's not really touting it due to the economy dominating all other issues. Would you consider the Obama administration as being successful in the realm of foreign policy? Well I think from a political perspective you could make that argument, which is probably how Nate Silver was talking about it because he analyzes things politically. Presidents have always benefited when they can go around beating their chest and pointing to all the corpses they've created of foreigners, preferably non-white foreigners. So to that extent, President Obama certainly has left a long trail of corpses in his wake and it's politically beneficial in that regard. But I've seen liberals arguing—not politically, but on substance—that Obama's foreign policy is a success. Michael Tomasky wrote that argument in The Daily Beast and that I think is extremely perverse because then foreign policy is basically Obama asserting the power to kill whomever he wants in total secrecy. Not in any places that are even wars zones, far from any battlefields. He's waged war in Libya without the authorization of the Constitution and the law requires from Congress. In fact, he waged it even when Congress voted against the authorization. So if you consider lawlessness and indiscriminate death and the exercise of radical, unlimited executive power with no safeguards to be a success, then I guess you would characterize Obama's foreign policy that way.
You've written extensively on Abu Ghraib and in a story on the infamous prison, an Iraqi man was quoted as saying, "They are leaving the country in the hands of politicians that are like teenagers…This is a bigger scandal than Abu Ghraib, leaving things unfinished with these politicians." Do you agree with that statement? What are you referring to?
Well, we're leaving Iraq in limbo without any real government or infrastructure or means of combating sectarian violence. An Iraqi man believes that this is worse than the torture that occurred at in the hands of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. Well, first of all, we aren't really leaving from Iraq. We are having what McClatchy's news service has called a "small army" of private contractors and others under the control of the State Department that will remain. So we'll try to exert influence there all the time in a bunch of other ways. To the extent that what he's talking about is that we basically invaded that country and then destroyed it and then have failed to rebuild it but instead installed a government that is basically as tyrannical as Saddam Hussein was, that's certainly true. But that's not surprising. That's what we're going to do in Libya as well and in Afghanistan. We invade these countries based on the claim that we're there to help, that we're there to bring democracy and stability, but what we're really interested in doing is making sure that the people who are running the country follow American dictates. After that, we don't really much care what happens to the country itself or the people in it. Those are just the props that are used to justify the war.
You also write a lot about Predator Drone strikes and how arbitrary and unlawful they really are. Rick Perry wants predator drones manning the border with Mexico. What do you think the implications are for a policy like that? In general, one of the reasons why you oppose dangerous government power is not necessarily because you oppose how it's being applied in the first instance. Typically, new powers are often applied in ways that people will feel comfortable with. So if the government wants to restrict speech they will pick the most hated person in the society and restrict their speech and nobody will care. If they want to start a war—and have a war without Congressional approval—they'll do it like the war with Libya, where nobody was really that opposed or bothered by it.
The problem is that these things proliferate far beyond their original applications, in every instance that's true. Historically, that's how power functions. Of course, if you're somebody who's been sitting by cheering while President Obama just murdered whomever he wants in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere with drones—which are robots controlled by the US Military and CIA—then that mentality, the idea that we should trust the government to extinguish the lives of bad people—including American citizens, which we've done with Anwar Awlaki in Yemen—with no safeguards, no oversight, no checks and balances, no due process, of course that's going to seep into American political life as well. Most of the power of the war on terror have begun already to be applied on US soil and the idea that drones can be used as, basically, flying death machines at the hand of the US government will absolutely one day, sooner rather than later I think, be brought to American soil.
Shifting gears, you visited Occupy Oakland earlier this week. I did.
What was your impression of what was going on? It was pretty fascinating. One of the things I've noticed about all the Occupy movements is that they tend to be really distinct based on the specific city in which they emerge. So there were vast differences between Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland even though they are a short distance apart. The thing that struck me the most about Occupy Oakland is that there are all kinds of factions who have very different views about what the protest should be, about what legitimate tactics are, about the role that violence and civil disobedience have to play in the movement. One of the things that's so impressive about it is that it's all being worked out through constant dialogue and debate and consensus and real democracy. Of course it's messy and there's disorder to it and there's downsides to having no centralized authority being able to dictate who does what. But the genius of the movement, the reason why it's inspiring, is because it's really organic. It's driven by the people who happen to get up out of bed and go there every day. It's real citizen activism, it's real democracy, and they have extremely legitimate grievances that resonate for large majorities of Americans. I think the possibility that it has to create all kinds of political good is really limitless and that's why I'm so enamored of it and fascinated by it.
Speaking to all the disparate beliefs and the consensus building, you tweeted something about "good luck co-opting the movement." So I guess it's hard in that sense to do so, but isn't it sort of imperative for a movement in our two party system to be co-opted in order to effectuate change? Isn't that sort of a cynical byproduct of our binary political system? The Tea Party had to be co-opted to influence the 2009 elections, so does Occupy Wall Street have to be co-opted to really affect the system? Well I think that the reason why the Occupy movement has been so resistant to the idea of identifying specific legislative changes that it wants and things like that that were being demanded by media organizations is because they are really not a movement about working within the political system in any way. They're not there to work for one of the two parties, they're not there to be pigeonholeable as a movement of the left or the right or the libertarian movement. It's really a space for dissenting angrily from the prevailing political and social and legal norms, based on the idea that those institutions have become illegitimate.
In that regard, it's much more about trying to change the political culture and the political dialogue and give people an outlet for their anger and their activism other than voting for a candidate or working for one of the two political parties. That really doesn't make much of a difference. It's really more exciting and more important than just trying to change whoever happens to be in control of these institutions and which party they belong to because they end up captive to the same interests.
That's why I say good luck co-opting it as Democrats and White House allies are obviously looking to do because I don't think the people who are there are even remotely interested in the kind of things you have to interest them in in order to turn them into soldiers for the democratic party or for Obama's reelection campaign.
So you don't think the White House is going to be successful in doing that? The effort is laughable. I think that if the people who are out there getting pepper sprayed and tear gassed and having rubber bullets shot at them and getting mass arrested were interested in working for a Democratic Party power, they would already be doing that instead of being out on the street.
Yeah but you think those folks—they wouldn't vote for a Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, and they probably wouldn't vote third party, so they're going to vote for Obama anyway, right? You know, it's possible some of them may end up voting for Obama. It's possible that a lot of them will abstain and simply refuse to vote at all. I can't predict who they're going to vote for, I can only tell you that I don't think the movement is going to be devoted towards the election of President Obama or any other politician.
Have you been down to Zuccotti Park since you've been in town? No, I actually was at Occupy DC yesterday and I will be in New York this week and definitely plan to take in Zuccotti Park.
You gave an interview to Yale last month, and you were talking about why you left practicing law to write. With the book, you sort of acknowledge that the law itself "wields tremendous power." What would you say to someone that believes you might have more efficacy working within the system, trying cases, than blogging on Salon? Well, having done both, I can tell you that the system itself is fundamentally flawed and trying to change it from within is not a very fruitful endeavor. If judges are there to serve a certain set of interests, and the rules are written in such a way to dictate certain outcomes, you may be able—in very isolated instances—to effect change in a positive way. But by and large you're working within a system that's built with inherent constraints. I think a much more important project at this point is to change how people think about political progress and their duties and responsibilities as citizens and open their eyes to political realities than I do to work within that system itself. That's why I'm much more attracted to writing to a large audience and trying to persuade as many people as possible to look at things in a certain way than I am just remaining in that system and being bound by its prison bars.