on October 26, 2011
In With Liberty and Justice for Some, Glenn Greenwald, a former civil rights litigator has produced a troubling indictment of the American justice system. His basic argument is that the system really has two tiers--one for the elite, who can often escape prosecution for serious crimes and another for the rest of us. The law, he argues, no longer creates a level playing field the way the founders of our constitution intended it to. During the last several decades in particular, the powerful have used the law as a weapon against the poor and the weak.
In a tightly written narrative, Greenwald covers how the law has been used to favor what he calls political and financial elites since the 1970s. He begins with President Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon despite his egregious crimes against the constitution and carries forward to the present day. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are spared. He is critical of the worldwide torture and doemstic spying that occurred during the administration of George W. Bush. But he also criticizes Obama for failing to prosecute both former members of the Bush administration and the financial elite on Wall Street.
The book is divided into five sections. The first covers the origin of elite immunity and talks about how the problem of inequality first developed in the public sector. The second covers the spread of elite immunity to the private sector including Wall Street. The third section entitled Too Big to Jail deals with how many on Wall Street and in the banks have escaped prosecution. The fourth entitled Immunity by Presidential Decree deals with presidential pardons; and the final section on the American justice system's second tier deals with how the system works for non-elites.
Greenwald's book is a passionately written one. The pages seethe with the author's moral outrage at the inequalities that exist within the American justice system. And the book will not fail to provoke the same sense of anger in the reader. Some of the problems that Greenwald points to really are inexcusable in a prosperous and democratic society and the author rightly argues that we need to find a way to address them.
I have given this book a high rating because it definitely forced me to rethink some of my fundamental assumptions about the American justice system. At the same time, I did not agree with Greenwald on all of his points. I sometimes found him to be a little bit TOO critical of the government. After September 11, in particular, I believe that the government was faced with unique and shocking circumstances. American officials believed that they had an urgent obligation to find new ways of protecting national security. Although the war on terror led to some acts that were not justifiable, to me these are different in a different category from the government's failure to prosecute Wall Street criminals. In the case of the latter the rich are more or less escaping justice for no good reason. On the whole, however, this book is an important one that raises fundamental questions about how justice is dispensed in America.
on November 7, 2011
I am a long time reader of Glenn's at his blog on salon.com. He's written a book that basically tracks his last few years of blogging, but in a longer format. Starting with Ford's pardon of Nixon, Glenn documents the various ways that political and financial elites have developed a two-tiered justice system with the elites generally immune to the laws and the rest of us harshly punished for even the most minor crime.
The best section, for me at least, was the final chapter on the second and third tiers of the justice system. America's prison state is appalling, and most of this section's material was brand new to me.
If I had one criticism it would be that if you've followed his blog as closely as I have, almost none of this--the last chapter partially excepted--is going to be new to you. But Glenn has published many thousands of words over the past three or four years, if you haven't read them all you'll find Glenn's aggressive style refreshing. He pulls no punches, names names, and doesn't necessarily play nice with the Beltway establishment. But that's what makes his voice so unique and needed--even if you disagree, you won't say that Glenn is pandering to anyone.
on November 22, 2011
Glenn Greenwald's With Liberty and Justice for Some is an extremely important book. I don't exaggerate when I say it's a book everyone in the United States should read, something I don't normally say about even my favorite books.
Greenwald makes the case in the United States today, rule of law is disappearing. Instead, we have what he calls "The Principle of Elite Immunity,"-the idea that political and business elites are never to be punished for their crimes, except perhaps if their crimes harm other elites. Greenwald blames the current mindset on Ford for pardoning Nixon and justifying the pardon on the grounds that prosecuting Nixon would be too divisive.
Now, personally, I don't think the pardon of Nixon would have been such a bad thing if it had been a one-time thing and the country had gotten back on course afterwards. However, Greenwald convincingly argues that the Nixon pardon was the beginning of a pattern of bad excuses for forgiving any and all high-level wrong doing in this country. Thus, we get pardons for Iran-Contra criminals, Bill Clinton suppressing inquiry into Regan and Bush's illegally providing of weapons to Iraq in spite of having promised investigations, and Obama's failure to prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration.
It's important to stress that the excuses really are ridiculous-read the book for the full recitation, but here's one especially bad example, both in terms of the flimsiness of the rationale and the fact that it was given by a member of our government's alleged watchdog, the media. When Bush pardoned Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for multiple felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with Iran-Contra, Richard Cohen, on the grounds that Cohen had run into Weinberger quite a few times at Safeway, and he seemed like an OK guy to Cohen.
One of the strongest sections of the book is the coverage of the NSA wiretapping scandal and the decision to grant telecoms immunity for breaking the law on behalf of the Bush administration. Previously, I had known about the scandal, but had simply filed it away in my brain as one of the lesser crimes of the Bush administration. However, Greenwald explains how by granting the telecoms retroactive immunity for breaking the law, Democrats (and Congress was controlled by Democrats at the time) passed on a rare opportunity to get an actual investigation into Bush's crimes.
Several other things stick out about the telecom immunity story. First, Congress' actions can't be defended on the grounds that the telecoms thought what they were doing was legal, because under the original law that was a valid defense. Second, the telecom immunity bill was written with heavy influence from corporate lobbyists, a troubling example of how, in Greenwald's words, "major corporations literally write our nation's laws." Third, as a senator Obama went back on an initial promise to help block telecom immunity. Had I known that fact when Obama was elected, his other lapses in office would have surprised me less.
By comparison, the discussion of lawbreaking in relation to the 2008 financial crisis was a bit weak. It includes quotes from a number of authorities, including Alan Greenspan saying that much of what happened was "just plain fraud," and cites one case where a former CEO was found to have committed fraud but was allowed to settle his case with a fine of $67, a fraction of the half-billion dollars he made while the fraud was going on. However, unlike most parts of the book, the laws that were supposedly broken are never explained clearly.
In fairness to Greenwald, part of his point is that the financial crisis was never thoroughly investigated, making it hard to know what crimes were or were not committed. Still, given all the anger at Wall Street right now, the book could have benefited a lot from more clarity on that point. Also, Greenwald's focus on lawbreaking means that his mention of how lobbyists managed to get important regulations repealed doesn't have a clear place in his narrative, and I wonder if that wasn't the bigger problem (though it would still be a sign of how corrupt our government is).
Anyway, With Liberty and Justice for Some is an excellent book in spite of this complaint, and telecom immunity and the financial crisis are only two examples of the problems Greenwald covers. So go buy the book, even if you think you know all about these problems. Looking at any one incident in isolation, it's tempting to say, "Okay, that was bad, but I'm sure it won't happen again." Greenwald, however, makes clear that we suffer from a recurring pattern of elites committing serious crimes and getting de facto immunity for doing so, a pattern that will likely continue until we do something to stop it.
on October 29, 2011
When I say fantastic, I mean of or relating to fantasy. And that fantasy is the idea that the "law" or the "state" ever equally represented people, that it was ever not a tool ultimately under the control of the economically powerful, that it ever functioned to provide liberty and justice for ALL.
As he does on his blog, Glenn fills his book with example after example of the legal double standards in the United States. It is in pointing out these double standards that he's at his most impassioned and readable. But just as his strengths carry over from his blog to the book, so do his weaknesses. The biggest one is that Glenn never really gets beyond the listing of grievances to offer a compelling explanation of why injustice has grown in recent decades (although, to Glenn's credit, he notes it has coincided with a massively growing economic gap). In other words, Glenn describes well, but explains poorly.
His attempt to provide an over arching framework is to cite the pardon of Nixon as a watershed moment, as if the pardon was a consciousness raising moment for political elites who were then emboldened to break the law with impunity. The problem with this historical narrative isn't that Nixon's pardon wasn't exceptional. It was indeed exceptional, but for a completely different reason. It symbolized a brief moment in U.S. history where grassroots pressure resulted in the exposure of crimes at the highest level of government. It was the exposure of the crimes, crimes which LBJ, JFK, and so many other previous presidents (of both parties) engaged in, that was remarkable. Not the fact that political leaders were getting away with the crimes, not the fact that political leaders began to expect to get away with their misdeeds.
Glenn fails to offer any decent explanatory foundation for the problem he identifies because he doesn't grasp enough of the history of power and how it has operated in the United States. An unfortunate consequence of this is the implication that we need to get back to some kind of legal garden of eden that Glenn seems to think we have fallen away from after Gerald Ford bit the forbidden fruit. It appears Greenwald hasn't read Howard Zinn, or has any familiarity with the fact that the powerful have always believed that their political and legal domination are the equivalent of justice for all, even when that "justice" has excluded women, Native Americans, African Americans, etc. Today is no different. There is injustice and inequality that benefit the people who think society and its application of laws are just and equal. The only notable change has been in how the elites reconcile their domination with the myth of equality.
The problem with Glenn's failure to construct an adequate explanatory frame is that it leaves him confused about where to go politically. Because Glenn keeps looking back to a paradisical time when capitalism supposedly rewarded the hard-working and punished the slothful, because he mistakes a presidential pardon with the underlying roots of inequality and injustice, he is left in a situation where he senses that roots of injustice run deep but where he is still implicitly wedded to the notion of "reclaiming" the democratic party. As if the party was ever not dominated by the powerful, who have only occasionally had to make concessions in periods of intense popular upheaval.
After hundreds of pages, the reader is left convinced that the law is indeed largely formulated by and at the behest of the powerful. But this observation is hardly new. Crack open any text by Marx or Bakunin, and you'll get a much more compelling expose, one that links up with an explanatory map capable of guiding activists who want to change the world for the better.
Glenn Greenwald's subtitle, "How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful", is an apt summation of the thesis of his book. He argues that, despite the intent of the Founders (admittedly not always applied in reality) that no one should be either above or below the law, American jurisprudence as it now de facto exists, creates two tiers of "justice": one level for the elite (government and business leaders and other rich and powerful individuals) which allows virtual immunity from all prosecution or consequences from nearly unlimited law-breaking, and another level for the rest of us.
For Greenwald, the Watergate scandal and President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon represented a fundamental break in American history. He doesn't argue that government and business elites never broke the law before that or even that they never got away with it, but in theory at least, the law was supposed to apply equally to everyone. Ford's pardon set the precedent for, and provided the justification of, immunity for the highest officials and defended such immunity as a good thing. The pardon raised the idea that reconciliation and prevention of future problems outweigh and overshadow punishment for past misbehavior (as if the former can happen without the latter), the idea that prosecution is too "messy" and divisive for the country, and the idea that certain positions are just too important to undermine for our national unity and security.
From that foundation, Greenwald touches briefly on the Iran-Contra scandal and the pardons and immunity granted to high level actors (which such protections, conveniently enough, protected those even higher on the food chain). But mostly Greenwald focuses his attention on the events of the past ten years. He spends a great deal of time examining the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, including spelling out the laws which make such wiretapping clearly illegal. Despite the clear illegality, however, neither anyone in the Bush administration nor the private companies which actually did the spying was ever prosecuted. Greenwald details exactly how such immunity came about, especially through lobbying groups and large campaign contributions.
From there Greenwald details a number of other executive abuses and the private influences which support them and the revolving door between - or, rather, the merger of - private industries and the government agencies which, supposedly, regulate them. Among others, Greenwald details the Bush administration's rendition, detention and torture regime and the financial collapse of the late 2000s, led by banks "too big to jail". In each case, Greenwald details how the elite behavior in question was clearly illegal, how such elites fought for immunity, and how such immunity was sold to the public. Many of these abuses took place during the Bush administration, but this is not a partisan hit piece. Greenwald also details how many of such abuses have continued (and even expanded) under Obama, and, perhaps more importantly, how Obama, despite his campaign promises of transparency in government and rule of law, has actively stifled any attempt to investigate, prosecute or even learn about such abuses. The motive, of course, is simple: if Obama investigates his predecessor's abuses, he dramatically limits his own ability to commit the same (or worse), while increasing his own chances of himself being prosecuted. Protecting one's predecessor is an act of self-preservation.
Over two-thirds of the book is dedicated to elite crimes, cover ups and immunity, but Greenwald also shines a brief light on the "second tier": what "justice" is like for the rest of us. He demonstrates that with the growing gap in income and power between the immune elite and the rest of us, the full weight of the "justice" system has been brought more and more to bear on the rest of us, especially those with the least money, resources and power. He looks at the war on drugs, racial inequalities, prison populations (and the relationship of those three factors), the war on terror and indefinite detention, and Obama's war on whistleblowers. This chapter felt very rushed and jam-packed. This section could have been fleshed out to at least double its length to more fully connect the dots and cement Greenwald's point.
Also, without entirely realizing it, Greenwald begins suggesting that there are actually three tiers of justice. Those in the (albeit dwindling) middle classes are certainly subjected to more of the weight of the criminal justice system than elites are (Greenwald jokingly suggests that next time you are pulled over for speeding you should suggest to the officer that this is a time to "look forward, not backward" and see how that works for you). But the ones who really bear the brunt of the system are the poor and minorities, those with the least power. In fact, if the middle classes were forced to endure the indignities of the "justice" system that the poor and minorities deal with on a daily basis, there would be revolt in the streets. Greenwald doesn't quite make the leap, but it is the presence of this relatively content middle class which allows the multi-tiered system to endure and elite immunity to continue.
I've long been an admirer of Greenwald and I read nearly every one of his blog posts. He has a rock solid sense of integrity and, despite having supported Obama himself, he is the first to call out liberals and Democrats for their hypocrisy in cheering Obama even when he commits abuses they used to excoriate Bush for. Greenwald is perhaps an ideologue, but hardly a partisan.
Unfortunately, however, Greenwald is a better blogger than he is a book writer. His blogs are succinct and concise with plenty of evidence to back them up point by point. It is, however, difficult to keep concise over the course of a 270+ page book, and the book often felt unfocused. Too much was packed into each chapter, which left some ideas and arguments not fully developed. Also, some of his quotes don't entirely add to his point. At times he simply quotes fellow liberal bloggers and journalists who are saying the same thing he says. Finding like-minded people saying the same thing you say doesn't really make you any more right. This criticism, however, applies to a minority of the quotes - most do in fact add to his point. It is worth noting that he does not include any sort of bibliography, end notes or footnotes. All his sources are referenced in the text itself.
There is a lot of important material packed into this book and I recommend it for anyone who cares about the direction our country is taking, but I'm afraid Greenwald is preaching to the choir. I don't know how much will be new to the average reader. Greenwald has a strong following (which such following will make up most of the readership of this book, I suspect), but I don't know how far out of that following his influence extends, and those within the following are already too well aware of everything he's written. Almost all of the information Greenwald presents is readily available and has been discussed, albeit rarely in the mainstream media. Those unaware of such information are those who chose to be unaware (or perhaps merely unconcerned) and, unfortunately, they seem to make up the larger share of the public. I don't know the solution, other than that sooner or later many more people will become aware the hard way. Greenwald argues that the multi-tiered "justice" system is unsustainable. I just fear for how it will end.
on May 31, 2012
A book of epic importance. Our society now channels about 50% of black males
from high school into prison, to keep the privatized prisons
full and profitable. Once they have "a record" they are never again eligible
for state or federal or municipal or most industry jobs. There are a permanent
Right now there are more black males in prison than were under slavery.
This is happening mostly under the radar, ignored even by major civil rights
on October 27, 2011
I knew some of the things in this book, but not all. It was enlightening and I think that it would do us well to read it with an open mind. There is no point in reading material of this type if you are not willing to read and learn. Of course, we all must form our own opinions. This helps us to do that rather than just spouting a party line.
on January 21, 2012
If you read just one book in 2012, let Glenn Greenwald's WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR SOME be it. (But really, please read more than one book this year. Reading is the best!)
Greenwald - a political columnist for Salon who previously worked as an attorney specializing in constitutional and civil rights issues - shows how, over the past several decades, the legal system has been bent, twisted, abused, and exploited to serve the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the many. Beginning with the Watergate scandal, he traces the evolution (or devolution, as it were) of "elite immunity," an increasingly accepted principle which holds that some people - and companies - are too large, too important, too powerful to be made to follow the same rules as the rest of us. While this exception initially only applied to those in the highest levels of government, it's gradually expanded to encompass government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as large corporations and their earthly representatives. Thus, the law - meant to be the great equalizer (of white, cissexual, Christian men ... and, eventually all American citizens) - instead works to perpetuate inequities in all realms of life.
In his discussion of elite immunity, Greenwald explores the idea through the use of two recent examples: the so-called "war on terror" (particularly the use of torture) and the financial crisis (including the fraudulent business practices that contributed to it). However, examples of elite immunity can be found far and wide: companies flout environmental regulations, face no criminal penalties for doing so - and, to add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for cleanup. (That is, if the mess is even cleaned up.) Animal ag ignores the paltry animal welfare laws that exist, and are lauded for their "good" (read: profitable) business practices. (All while receiving handouts from the taxpayers in the form of subsidies and complimentary "pest" control programs, such as plans to wipe out wolves who dare dine on cows.) Police officers assault largely nonviolent Occupy protestors, in some cases forcibly holding their eyes open so that they can harm them with pepper spray, and no one but the occasional scapegoat is held accountable. (Of course, police brutality is nothing new; men and women of color, trans* people, sex workers, the homeless, those with mental and physical disabilities - all have been and continue to be targets of police abuse, with little hope of recourse from our legal system.)
Normally this is where I'd include a few excerpts or choice facts - but it's difficult to quote any one passage, because it's all compelling. (Insert the rage comic "I'll highlight all the important parts." / "IT'S ALL IMPORTANT." here.) Really, if you're even the least bit interested in politics, justice, or democracy, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR SOME is a must read.
My only complaint is that, after working the reader into a frenzy of fury-slash-depression, Greenwald doesn't so much as hint at a how we might go about fixing this mess. Granted, any solutions are likely to be complicated and multifacted and require more than a chapter (or even a book) to adequately explain, but just a taste of hope and optimism would be nice. Personally, I wish he'd touched upon electoral reform - particularly the public financing of elections - as a start, but I'm also curious as to what he'd suggest. Ah well, next book perhaps?
on June 13, 2015
Greenwald delivers a scathing review of the United States' broken legal system in this book from 2012. Known for his powerful, smart critiques of greater powers, the author quickly points out how unequal the justice system is between the economic elite and everyday citizenry. From Bush's epic plundering of Iraq and horrific torture regime to Obama's droning of the Middle East and silencing of whistleblowers to the financial calamity of 2008, Greenwald analyzes how each group has avoided legal action -- even helping to rewrite laws and provide retroactive immunity to criminals.
Much of the book covers well tread territory, though. I've read books on all of these major topics from "Dirty Wars" to "The Big Short" that chronicle the terrifying rise of income inequality, totalitarian war powers, and unequal justice. Greenwald tends to scratch the surface on all these areas, rather than going into greater detail. Two-thirds of the book is dedicated to primarily the executive branch's wrongdoings, which felt frustrating. I expected there to be more emphasis on those most disenfranchised by the inequality.
Greenwald, as always, is a skillful writer and columnist. His words ring true and research proves his point: the justice system is broken, but we can improve it. Two stars removed due to the aforementioned points regarding novelty of coverage and depth for poorest classes who are suffering most.
on November 19, 2013
At the time of this book's publication in 2011, Glenn Greenwald had become a highly- respected journalist, known to most readers through his columns at Salon magazine. With his ongoing publication of the NSA files taken by Edward Snowden, Greenwald has emerged as the foremost independent journalist of our time.
"With Liberty and Justice for Some" is a scathing indictment of the US justice system. Heavily based in fact and replete with information, it is a devastating account of the two -tiered system that judges the indigent harshly while letting the wealthy and well- connected off the hook for crimes -- financial and otherwise -- that are far more damaging and dangerous to society. As thoroughly documented, the legal offenses (including the use of torture and targeted murder) extend to the top of the US political system in the administrations of both GW Bush and Barack Obama. In reading this book, I found myself continually outraged, and my copy is now full of underlinings, marginal notes, and bent-down page corners. Since other reviewers have summarized the nature and content of Greenwald's arguments, I won't duplicate their efforts. I strongly recommend this work to anyone who cares about social justice and to anyone interested in learning of how the law is abused to protect privilege and power in violation of equality, liberty and justice for the many.
Note: As of this writing, this book has received 62 reviews at Amazon, 58 of which awarded one of the highest two ratings. That may be unprecedented for a politically- oriented book, and speaks powerfully for the strength of Greenwald's work and the high regard in which he is held.