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Glenn Greenwald on Two-Tiered U.S. Justice System, Obama’s Assassination Program & the Arab Spring

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Glenn Greenwald’s new book, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful,” offers a scathing critique of what he calls the two-tiered system of justice that ensures the political and financial class is virtually immune from prosecution in the United States. Greenwald explores how the media, both political parties, and the courts have abetted a process that has produced torture, war crimes, domestic spying, financial fraud, and even the assassination of U.S citizens. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today we spend the rest of the hour with renowned political and legal writer Glenn Greenwald. His new book is called With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful_. Glenn blogs for greenwald/”> His new book offers a scathing critique of what he calls the two-tiered system of justice that has emerged in America. According to the book, the law was once a guarantor of a common set of rules for all. But Greenwald argues that over the past four decades, the principle of equality before the law has been effectively abolished. Instead, a two-tiered system of justice ensures that the country’s political and financial class is virtually immune from prosecution.

AMY GOODMAN: The book begins with the Watergate scandal, then covers the Iran-Contra affair, culminates with Obama’s decision not to prosecute Bush-era officials for a range of illegal activities, including torture, warrantless wiretapping and waging an illegal war.

Glenn Greenwald, welcome to Democracy Now!

GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Let us start just where you start, with the title, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. How?

GLENN GREENWALD: The book really came out of my writing about a series of discrete episodes, and I eventually realized that it was all tied together by a common theme, namely this common theme: the disintegration of the rule of law, the way the rule of law is used no longer as a guarantor of equal opportunity to legitimize outcome inequality, but as a weapon by the most politically and financially powerful to entrench their prerogatives and shield their ill-gotten gains. And what really sparked it most of all was my experience in writing about the scandal involving warrantless eavesdropping, in which the president, President Bush, and vaious officials got caught red-handed doing exactly that which the criminal law prohibits, which is spying on the conversations of American citizens without warrant, without any repercussions whatsoever, even though it’s a crime under the statute, punishable by five years in prison and $10,000 fine, and then, worse, the fact that there was the telecom industry directly participating in it, even though there were a series of laws written in the wake of the Church Committee investigation that specifically aimed at telecoms and said that if you participate in knowing violation of the law with the government, you can be sued and prosecuted. And they began being sued and losing in court, and yet Congress intervened and passed a law that had no purpose other than to retroactively immunize them for liability. And what you saw was a whole series of arguments by political and media elites that essentially explicitly argued that the most powerful and important institutions in society should not be subjected to prosecution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn Greenwald, in your book, you call Admiral Michael McConnell, quote, “the face of private sector immunity.” McConnell is a former director of the National Security Agency who later went on to direct defense programs at Booz Allen, one of the nation’s biggest defense and intelligence contractors. In January 2007, President Bush appointed retired Navy Vice Admiral Mike McConnell as the new chief of intelligence. I want to go to a clip of McConnell in which he said he would work to increase the coordination between the nation’s 16 different spy agencies.

ADM. MICHAEL McCONNELL: I plan to continue the strong emphasis on integration of the community to better serve all of our customers. That will mean better sharing of information, increased focus on customer needs and service, improved security processes, and deeper penetration of our targets, to provide the needed information for tactical, operational and strategic decision making.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: McConnell talks about the crusade for retroactive amnesty for the telecoms involved with wireless—warrantless wiretapping. Glenn, can you talk about that?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, what I found so incredible about Admiral McConnell is just how blatant the sleaze is in this regard. I mean, he’s not really uncommon. He’s actually quite common. It’s just extra glaring, because while he was at Booz Allen, prior to being named director of national intelligence by the Bush administration, what he really devoted himself to at Booz Allen, which is one of the largest private military contractors in the world representing a whole slew of national security state clients, was increasing the profit and business of the private national security industry by having greater and greater amounts of government functions privatized in the national security and surveillance realms. So he wanted to give more and more of government functions over to private industry, that he represented.

Once he got into office as the director of national security—director of national intelligence, he continued exactly the same agenda, trying to privatize as many government functions as possible to turn over as many government contracts as possible so that we were outsourcing how we protected the nation, how we surveilled on the citizenry. What was most amazing was that he really led the way to demand amnesty for the telecom industry, the telecom industry that he was serving while he was in the private sector, that he was the chairman of, in terms of a commission to get more government-private-sector cooperation. And then, once he was done vesting all of this industry with all of these lavish and very lucrative benefits as the director of national intelligence, he returned to Booz Allen, once the Bush administration was done, and started receiving huge amounts of money from the same industry. So it’s just—it’s this constant back-and-forth between the public and private sectors where there really is no difference in terms of the functions they serve.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue of assassinations. Last week, a U.S.-born teenager became the third U.S. citizen to be killed in CIA drone strikes in Yemen. The 16-year-old boy, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki’s, the U.S.-born Islamic cleric killed in a drone attack along with Samir Khan, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen who was raised in New York and Virginia. After the first two assassinations, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups condemned the Obama administration for assassinating U.S. citizens never charged with a crime. Despite the criticism, President Obama praised the drone strike that killed the cleric Awlaki.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The death of Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Furthermore, the success is a tribute to our intelligence community and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces who have worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, your response?

GLENN GREENWALD: One of the most incredible things is to watch the President of United States seize the power to target American citizens for death, far away from any battlefield, with no due process whatsoever. If you were to say during the Bush years, “What’s the most radical possible power that you could imagine the Bush-Cheney administration seizing?” it would be exactly that. It’s more than anything else what the Constitution was intended to prohibit: the killing of American citizens with no due process, because of their political activities or because of secret accusations. And to watch the President praise himself for doing it, and very little controversy over it, is really remarkable.

But what’s even more remarkable is that this is all done with complete secrecy. It is something that the President will not answer questions about, in terms of the principles that are guiding this. What legal authority they have, they won’t disclose. And then not only did they kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen, but then, two years later, his 16-year-old son. And they refused to say whether or not they targeted that teenager, the American teenager, for death, whether or not they played the key role in killing him. We all know they did, but their secrecy obsession is so extreme that they won’t even answer questions. So not only do we have the government targeting citizens for death, just on the President’s say-so, we have them doing it in total secrecy without any explanation or response from—in terms of questions.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think the U.S. government should have dealt with Awlaki?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, for one thing, they could have easily indicted him, if they think that he actually committed crimes. I mean, we have incredibly broad criminal statutes that make it a crime almost to get near a terrorist, let alone to be one. So if they really thought that he was actually somebody who was committing crimes, they could have indicted him. They obviously had the ability to find him, which they did multiple times within Yemen. The Yemeni government is essentially a client state of the United States. And efforts could have been made to apprehend him and then to bring him to the United States and try him, the way we do with other criminals.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How to explain, Glenn, why it is that the Obama administration has gone further than the Bush administration both with respect to civil liberties and targeted assassinations?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I think—I mean, it’s obviously difficult to know motives, what motivates any of us, but I think one thing that seems pretty clear is that the Obama administration believes itself to be very good and progressive and enlightened. And when political leaders believe themselves to be enlightened and progressive, oftentimes there’s even a greater danger that power will be abused, because they find ways to justify what it is that they do and believe that there’s no transparency and accountability necessary. So when there was a Republican president in office, President Obama and his supporters had no trouble understanding why oversight and due process was necessary, why it was dangerous and evil to have the government punish people without any proof that they’ve actually done anything wrong. And yet, now that there is someone that they perceive as being good in power, they believe that those checks are no longer necessary. Of course, basic to political science and the American founding and human nature is that people cannot operate and exercise power without checks, or they’ll inevitably abuse it.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, graphic images of a blood-drenched and shaken Muammar Gaddafi started circulating around the world after the Libyan dictator’s death near his hometown of Sirte on Friday. Yesterday, President Obama said Gaddafi’s death sends a strong message to dictators around the world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is somebody who for 40 years had terrorized his country, had supported terrorism, and he had an opportunity during the Arab Spring to finally let loose of his grip on power and to peacefully transition to democracy. We get him ample opportunity, and he wouldn’t do it. And, you know, obviously, you never like to see anybody come to the kind of end that he did, but I think it obviously sends a strong message around the world to dictators that people long to be free, and they need to respect the human rights and the universal aspirations of people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama on the late night show with Jay Leno. Glenn Greenwald, both the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, and then if you could talk about the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, President Obama, I think, is one of the absolute worst messengers for that message that he just delivered about the message being sent to Arab dictators, given that right now his administration is actively supporting and arming the regime in Bahrain, which is oppressing its people at least as cruelly as Gaddafi ever did. He announced recently, after a phone call with the Saudi prince, that the U.S.-Saudi cooperative relationship is stronger than ever. He continues to heap praise on the Yemeni president as he slaughters his citizens in his street. And, of course, the Obama administration stood by the Mubarak regime and continues to support military repression in that country, as well. American citizens, to some degree, aren’t aware of these conflicts between his message and his actions, but people in that part of the world are well aware of them. And, of course, we had a long and cooperative relationship with Gaddafi, as well.

As far as the killing of Osama bin Laden is concerned, there again, we had the opportunity to have detained him and arrested him and shown the world what American justice is, to present evidence of his guilt, which is doubted in parts of the world, and to show the kinds of face that we are capable of displaying, the way we did, for example, in the Nuremberg trials when we apprehended the most heinous Nazi criminals. Instead of shooting them in the skull and dumping their corpse into the ocean, we put them on trial and established principles that we said would guide us forever. And he passed up that opportunity and instead killed Osama bin Laden summarily, dumped his corpse into the ocean, and then went around beating his chest and praising himself. And I think what that does is it starts to shape our national identity and the kind of country that we are in a way that’s not just repellent, but very detrimental to our own interests.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Glenn Greenwald. He has written a new book. It’s called With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. We’ll be back with him in a moment.

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