This is a transcript of an interview with Glenn Greenwald done in 2011, broadcast on November 2, 2011. We started off talking about his book, With Liberty and Justice for Some. unfortunately, we tried a new transcriptionist and the transcript was rife with errors. I finally got around to correcting it this past weekend. Unfortunately, most of the things we discussed are still relevant, two years later.
Rob Kall: Hey, welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom
Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM, sponsored by Opednews.com, and
tonight, I'm very excited to have as my guest, Glenn Greenwald.
He is the author of a new book that is just skyrocketing.
It is just amazing how well it is doing and for good reason,
it is the awesome book. The book is With Liberty and Justice
Glenn is a blogger and a columnist for Salon.
He's been a constitutional attorney. Bill Moyers has
described him as the most important voice to have entered the
political discourse in years.
Welcome to the show, Glenn.
Glenn Greenwald: Great to be here.
Thanks for having me. .
Rob Kall: Yeah. The last time we spoke,
you were in Brazil.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. Exactly. I
Rob Kall: So, you've got this book that
basically, is describing a lot of what people are
occupying all across America about. Give us a brief synopsis
of what the book is about.
Glenn Greenwald: Well essentially, if we look
at the last decade, what we see is very serious and egregious
crimes committed by the most powerful political and financial
elites in the country, from the creation of a worldwide
torture regime, to spying on American citizens without the warrants
required by law, to an aggressive attack on Iraq and multiple
episodes of obstruction of justice and in the private sector
of course, the systematic fraud that precipitated the 2008
Financial Crisis. And yet none of these crimes have provoked
meaningful investigations of any kind, let alone prosecutions. And
yet at the very same time that we've created this kind of
shield of immunity for elites, we have built up the world's
largest prison system and one of the harshest and most merciless
systems of punishment for ordinary Americans and this kind of
two-tiered justice system where you receive total immunity if you
are an elite and commit crimes but extremely harsh and merciless
punishment If you are an ordinary American, is really the
antithesis of what the rule law was intended to be.
Rob Kall: So, this - your book, it describes
how this started with Watergate and Gerald Ford was the first to
make the excuse. Can you talk a little bit how this
Glenn Greenwald: Well, the idea really isn't
that we've always, throughout history of course, he failed to
completely adhere to equality under the law. . In fact, we
have violated it rather violently and severely throughout our
history. But at least for the first term of years, we, at
least, affirmed the principle of equality under law so that - even
when we're violating if we've still held it out as the principle
that should be your aspirational guiding principle. Well,
really started happening with the pardon of Nixon is that the
protocol class began promulgating these arguments, this rational,
to justify shielding elites from the rule of law. Things that
- like, like we need to look forward and not backward on that, it
would be too disruptive to hold the political elites accountable on
the same terms as ,ordinary Americans that it was more important
that ,we get political harmony and that would be good for the
nation. And it was this template that was created during the
attempt to justify the Ford pardon of Nixon that really became the
justifying rational going forward for how political and then
financial elites are shielded from consequence when they break the
Rob Kall: Now, is this something that is a
partisan issue or is it a bipartisan phenomena?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I mean, well, all you
have to do it. You know the answer to that is to look at,
hear with is that is protecting the Bush era, some prosecution and
accountability and that of course, that the Obama Administration
and the Democratic Party. So, it isn't just that, the Obama
Administration has shielded Bush officials from domestic
prosecution but also had to work very hard diplomatically to make
sure that other countries like Spain and Germany not investigate.
They've gone into court and prevented the victims of the war
on terror and all the crimes and abuses committed under from having
their day in court. Sisano it is very much of a by-part mentality
that shields, political elites. It is, of course the Obama
administration that has failed to hold accountable any of the
banking executives or Wall Street elites as well. And you see
this over and over throughout the years from both political
Rob Kall: Now, you've written that when
the law is wielded only against the powerless, it ceases to be a
safeguard against injustice and becomes the primary tool of
oppression. This sounds like some Banana Republic.
Glenn Greenwald: Well, interestingly, if you
used to use terms like Banana Republic to apply to the United
States, people would think you are being sort of fringe and
marginal and yet if you look now at even the most mainstream
establishment discourse you see people making that observation all
the time some necklace or stuff, or example, the comments to the
New York Times as well in semi-columns compare in the United States
to a Banana Republic or third world country. Simon Johnson
who used to be the Head of the International Monetary Fund. wrote
an article in the May 2009 issue of the Atlantic entitled The Quiet
Coup, the coup being the takeover of American Democracy by its
oligarchs. And he described how the political process
functions very similar to how it did in emerging markets in
Russia and Argentina and some of the Eastern Block countries when
they had financial collapse as well. And you are exactly
right, The United States has been sermonizing to the world
that countries in which the elites are able to exempt themselves
from the dictates of the law are essentially counties that
don't live under of law and cannot become first world nations
until they correct that problem and yet we are the ones who do that
as much as anybody now.
Rob Kall: You've written this book and
you are getting an incredible amount of coverage-- well- deserved.
What do you want to have this book accomplish?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, for one thing. I
think that any kind of meaningful social change, a pre-requisite to
it is persuading one's fellow citizens to appreciate the depth of
the problem and the severity of it and then the need to act and you
know, the only reason to write a book, I think, is to draw
attention to things that you think need more attention and yet
aren't getting it.
That is definitely how I think about the issue about
the way the Rule of Law has been so clearly repudiated. And I
think Americans already know on an intuitive level that this is
true. I think it is the sentiment driving lots of the anger
over our political class and certainly the Protest Movement that is
rapidly growing, the Occupy Protest Movement. And so, you
know, I think sometimes, things just need a little push. And the
discourse, and attention in light shined on it in order to really
light a spark and hopefully that is what the book will achieve.
Rob Kall: Are you seeing any signs of that
anywhere that lights a spark in your heart, that things you are
wakening people up, waking the right people up?
Glenn Greenwald: Really. One of the more
most exciting and inspirational development in American Politics is
the emergence of this Occupy Movement and I have been in contacted
since the release of the book by a dozen or so ciities where the
organizers have asked me to come and speak to - at their protest
movement because the book resonates so completely with the protest.
It is really describing the motivating force behind the
movement itself. You know, and so it's gotten a lot of
exposure in media outlets and venues. The book has sold a lot and
done well. So, you know, hopefully, the cumulative effect to
all of this will be to force this more into the discourse and shine
more light on it.
Rob Kall: I have to tell you that I'm in
Washington. I arrived this evening and I walked from the bus
stop, first to Freedom Plaza and then to McPherson Square to
revisit them. I was there back in early October. I asked at
both places if they had any questions for you and the uniform
one was, "Will he come and speak."
Glenn Greenwald: Right. Yeah.
Well, I'm actually scheduled to speak in Washington to Occupy
on NOvember 6. . I don't know Occupy said for me, I've
had a lot of media appearances as part of this book trip,
with big radio interviews and speeches, and easily, the thing
that I'm looking forward to and that I find the most exciting
I think, is to spend time at the protests and talking to
Rob Kall: Okay. I know. About the
questions and I want to hear, well, you know, let's just talk about
that. What - talk to me more about Occupy, the movement, the
occupied territories and where you see that sitting into how any
changes going to happen?
Glenn Greenwald: I think in general there are
two ways that societal and political change can be effectuated.
One is by word within the political system to elect leaders
and change political factions and agitate for reform, legislative
The problem is that one, the perception is ossified
that the political culture and political institutions are no longer
legitimate and are fundamentally warped and rotted. Then the
only means for change becomes marching in the street and engaging
in social disruption and social unrest.
It is precisely because there is a perception that
our political system, not one of the two parties but the political
system itself is illegitimate and does not permit that kind
of change-- that no matter who you vote for, no matter which
candidate you will elect, things pretty much continue as is- that
there is this growing sense that the only kind of change that makes
any sense or that matters is going out into the street and being
socially disruptive and signaling that the status quo is
unacceptable and unsustainable and I think that is what you are
seeing with these movements and that is why I find them so
Rob Kall: So, we're seeing from the police a
lot of violence, in Oakland, in Atlanta, in Denver. do you
see things staying peaceful?
Glenn Greenwald: I mean, the protesters have
been very committed to peaceful assembly and non-violence.
Rob Kall: I'm losing you again a little
Glenn Greenwald: But you know, if everyone
Rob Kall: I'm losing your sounds. Can
you get the mic to "
Glenn Greenwald: It is okay. So, is that
Rob Kall: Much better. Yeah.
Glenn Greenwald: So, you know, I think that
the protesters themselves have been very committed to peaceful
assembly and to non-violence, but you know it is just a fact in
political life that when you challenge or try (garbled)
Rob Kall: I'm losing your voice again.
Now, it just turned back better. Yeah. Something
may be a problem.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. So, I think - I
think what you're going to see is increasing use of violence on the
part of Police forces, on the part of even federal authorities, if
the protest movement grows enough, and it is going to be designed
to intimidate and deter people from participating.
Rob Kall: The federal forces are going to get
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I think if the protest
movement continues to grow and sustain then yeah, I think you are
definitely going to see more state violence in response.
Rob Kall: As an attorney, what's your
suggestion for the movement to do?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, with my - well, with my
suggest - I'm sorry. I do not understand the question.
Rob Kall: Well, you are a Constitutional
attorney and if the State becomes more, more violent, what do the
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I think, I think
they've been doing exactly the right thing ,which is continuing to
insist on the right of the assembly being very aggressive and
persistent in their demands , but at the same time maintaining the
posture of non-violence. I think that's the best success to
the Movement and at the same time they can take legal action to ask
Federal Courts to protect their right to assemble as they've done
in Cleveland and in other areas, but I think the movement is doing
exactly the right thing. I think, they should continue to
grow and demand its right to assemble and its way to free speech
but in the right to petition the government but not engage in the
kinds of actions that will justify police abuse.
Rob Kall: Now, who are bad guys? This is
all about treating the elites totally differently, better
than the 99 Percent. Who are the bad guys who are
perpetuating this and making it worse?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I mean, certainly the
people in political power are abdicating their responsibility to
limit one another through the force of law and to limit those who
are most in power and if the people here who are - have financial
power who decided that they can completely disregard the
constraints of law without any consequence, so of course Wall
Street tycoons in investment banks that engage in systematic fraud
that precipitated the 2008 Financial crisis are "
Rob Kall: Wait, wait. There are the bad
guys who should be prosecuted. I met the bad guys who were
not prosecuted. Who are the people who are - you know
Glenn Greenwald: Well, the responsibility to
prosecute lies with the Executive branch in Article II of the
Constitution. It said, "The President shall take care that
the laws are faithfully executed,"and it's the Department of
Justice is responsible for prosecuting people who violate the
Criminal Law, the Federal Criminal Law. They're the ones who
add the jurisdictions to prosecute Bush torturers and eavesdroppers
and to prosecute Wall Street criminals as well and they've
abdicated that responsibility.
Rob Kall: So, I'm looking for names. Are
you talking about Obama? His aides? Is it Eric Holder?
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, of course. And
Obama is the President and Eric Holder is the Attorney General and
they run the Justice Department and they're the ones with
Rob Kall: So, would you have a conversation
with them? Have you talked to them?
Glenn Greenwald: I mean, I talked to people in
the Justice Department. I've never talked to either President
Obama or Attorney General Holder but, you know, I think for a
while, there was a desire on the part of the Justice Department,
including Holder, to investigate Bush crimes, to be more aggressive
about Wall Street investigations and there was pressure, quite
openly, and publicly placed on them from the White House not to do
so. Rahm Emanuel went on ABC News and said the desire
of the President is they asked Holder not to investigate, and
Robert Gibbs said the same thing from the podium of White House
when he was the Press Secretary. And so, there was clear
pressure of all privately and publicly exerted by the White House
on the Justice Department to refrain from engaging in these kinds
Rob Kall: Now, you've talked about how they
use this idea of looking forward and justice and criminal
prosecution is all about looking backward. Could you talk a
little bit about that?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, the cliche that
has been invented to justify shielding Bush criminals from
accountabilities is that we should look forward and not backward
and as you said, the whole idea is preposterous because all crime
is by definition are committed in the past, not the future.
There is no such thing as a crime committed in the future,
and you know, if itwere the case that we were to decide that
we wanted to be a lenient society and adopt this mentality of look
forward not backwards, you know, you could argue it but at least it
would be legitimate if it were applied across the board.
So, if you are somebody who, you know, rob the bank
and you get caught by the Police and the Police come arrest you and
you say, "Look, officer. You know, you got me. I did
what you claimed I did," but you know, that was in the past , that
was three months ago. Why go digging in the past?
Isn't it more important to look in the future? If you
got away with the crimes you committed based on the plea, then I
think that, you know, you can have all, you know, now under your
community but at least to rule of law would be equally applied, But
of course, of course, this whole idea of look forward not backward
applies only to political and financial elites. Ordinary Americans
can't avail themselves of this kind of defense.
At the same time, the Obama Administration has been
very aggressive of that during things like investigating and
prosecuting Whistle Blowers who, back in 2002-2003 disclosed high
level law-breaking and criminality and so, they are very willing to
look backward and prosecute when it suits them.
Rob Kall: Opednews, the site I publish is very
involved with the whistle Blower community. We're the
go-to place for their articles? And the Whistle
Blowers, say that the Obama Administration is worse than all the
previous presidents combined when it comes to the way they treat
whistle blowers. How does that jibe with your book and what
you have to say?
Glenn Greenwald: Well "
Rob Kall: I mean, if your book in your
Glenn Greenwald: Well, it is just fascinating
that the Obama Administration has been so aggressively protecting
high-level criminals and yet they've been punishing those who
expose criminality. So, if you work for example at the NSA
warrantless eavesdropping scandal, what is amazing there is that
not a single one of the people responsible for spying an American
about Lauren for then how accountable or punished anyway. The
only person to be punished in anyway from that episode is someone
named Thomas Tam. He was a mid-level Justice Department
lawyer who found out that the Bush administration was flying
without the warrants of cry bygone when they pick up the phone and
call their [inaudible 0:18:54] the New York Times to tell him that
this was taking place. The New York Times won a Pulitzer
Prize for reporting that, but the Bush and Obama DOJ assembled the
Grand Jury and issued subpoenas and aimed at investigating not the
law-breaking but who disclosed the law-breaking, Thomas Tam lost
his job and he could not really even afford lawyers and ended up in
bankruptcy trying to defend himself from these investigations, so
that's very - a sort of a personification of how this two tiered
system of justice works. The law-breakers at the highest level of
government were shielded while the whistleblower was
Rob Kall: When this happens again and again,
are precedents set? Is this something that once it happens, it kind
of gets embellished into the law?
Glenn Greenwald: Sure. I mean,
everything with the law is a precedent, so you know, if something
happens and the certain outcome takes place, the next time that
same thing happened, people will point to that outcome as a - as
how the law functions and justify doing it again.
So, you know, absolutely that's what happened
with the Ford pardon of Nixon. All the people believed that
it was important to protect Richard Nixon as this one-time
aberration and that set a precedent, that whenever political
leaders break the law and disharmony would result from prosecution,
it is better that they just simply protect them, pardon them,
shield them and move on. And that became a precedent and
every time that we've done that since, with Iran contra, now with
the Bush crimes, with Wall street criminals-- and that
creates more precedents normalizing this idea that elites should be
shielded by the rule of law.
Rob Kall: Yuck. So, what about corporate
personhood? It is almost like these elites are getting the
same kind of treatment as corporations. It is like an overlap
'cause corporations get specie treatment, too.
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I mean, corporation
requires a really nothing more than a reflection of typically
wealthy individuals who are their share holders. And so the
law has been exploited lots of different ways to make sure that the
interest of elites are protected.
Now, I'm not somebody who believes that this issue is
so clear-cut. If you look at, for example, at the ACLU
or labor unions and the like, most people think that they should
have some constitutional protection that the government should not
be able to see the, I think, account-to-be COU without due process
that it shouldn't be able to invade their offices without a Search
Warrant. That it shouldn't be able to punish the unions for
their first enrollment free speech. So, we do believe that
entities are protected under the Constitution and in ways that the
Constitution describes as being the rights of persons. But I
think it is really more of a systemic problem that the courts are
basically very pre-disposed to deciding in favor of corporations
even when they get caught breaking the law and I think that
is really the problem.
Rob Kall: Okay. This is getting worse
and worse? How much worse could it get? What are ways
that it could get even worse than it is now?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I mean, there is no
reason why it could not continue get worse. I mean, we've
seen nations of the world that have severe amounts of income
inequality and wealth inquality and that is one of the problems--
the more the rich are able to consolidate their wealth and then use
that wealth to exert influence over the political process, the more
they're going to continue to try and entrench their power, to
increase it, to expand it. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle
with the rich-poor gap just creates its own momentum to continue to
grow. And we're already at the point. We've seen riots and
unrest and disruptions in other societies that have less problem
with economic anxiety and suffering and inequality than the United
States has. And it just stands to reason that we're going to
have a lot of that unrest and disruption and potentially even
rioting as well if things continue on their current path.
Rob Kall: Wow. You talk about outcome
inequality. What is that about?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, the way I look at
outcome and equality and then a sort of analogize the issue to say
a running race where in a fair and legitimate running race,
everyone starts at the same point-- the starting line--and can only
run when the starting gun is shot and has to abide by the same
rules. You can't invade the lanes of the other runners. You
can't knock them down with your elbows. Everyone has to
maintain an arms-length relationship with the Judge. You
can't pay the Judge to decide on your favor.
As long as those basic rules are abided by to assure
a fair playing field then we accept inequality and outcome as
legitimate. So, someone is going to cross the finish line
first and be declared the winner and the fastest runner.
They're going to get some cash prize for having won.
There is going to be a second place finisher and then a last
place finisher. And that is all I mean by all come in
equality. Somebody wins and gets more.
That's what I mean by outcome inequality. Somebody
wins and gets more and somebody loses and gets less. And we
generally accept that in the United States if we believe that it is
legitimate. So, for example, Steve Jobs died with eight
billion dollars. Nobody really begrudged him having eight billion
dollars, even though there was mass joblessness and homelessness
and mortgage foreclosures and massive inequality because there was
a perception that he had earned that money and earned those
winnings. The problem comes when the outcome inequality seems
illegitimate because it is the byproduct not of merit and
achievement but of cheating, of rule breaking on an uneven playing
field and I think that is clearly the position we are in.
Rob Kall: Yeah. Now, I was reading in
the Wall Street Journal today there was an article about prisons.
So, there are more and more private prisons and private
prisons are trying to prevent prisoners from being able to have the
same access to lawsuits that they have in Federal Prisons.
Where does that fit into this picture.
Glenn Greenwald: Well, the existence of the
Private Prison Industry is definitely one of the main problems.
Private prison incorporations profit by having more and more
prisoners in their system. They are basically customers and
so it is in their interest to do things like work against the
loosening of sentencing requirements or reforming of the drug laws
that would enable people to get out of prison more
quickly and they lobbied against these changes.
And the other part of it is that the State has a
responsibility to ensure basic conditions within the prison but
these prison industries have an interest to minimize cost in order
to maximize profit and so, conditions within the prisons worsen and
the liberties and freedoms that prisoners have continue to
constrict and so we already have one of the most merciless and
harshest prison systems in the world and the way we're privatizing
the present system has only made that worse on many levels.
Rob Kall: So, you've got this book. You
are going around promoting these ideas and so hopefully people will
wake up. Are there any legislators that have sample
legislation? Is there sample legislation on how to fix this?
Glenn Greenwald: Well, I think the problem,
you know, I think - I think, the problem is more cultural and
systemic in legislative. I mean, you can pass some good bills
that if you put into the same corrupted system; it is not going to
make much of a difference.
Having said that, there are a couple of senators and
members who have spoken out on this The problem is that there
is not really a benefit to doing it. There is not a huge
constituency demanding a liberalization of our punishment
schemes. But people like Jim Ladd have talked about how the United
States imprisons more citizens and many country in the world and
how we put people in prison for things that are trivial and minor
and even for drug possession that are really matters of health and
how the impact is racist and discriminatory and we need fundamental
reform in the justice system, it is really no political gain to be
had by pursuing those things 'cause there few politicians who do.
Rob Kall: Last question-- You're going to talk
to Occupy people living in the tents. What are you going to
Glenn Greenwald: I want to tell them that
since I began running about politics, the main question that I've
had presented to me is what can we do about all this, and what
makes them so inspiring and compelling is that they basically, have
found the answer. I mean, there are people who are
sacrificing their own interest in order to create this space of
dissent and to signal to the elites that this is no longer
acceptable and they've inspired huge numbers of people to do the
same and to support them and I hope that they will continue
doing because it is really doing all the good.
Rob Kall: All right. Thank you so much.
Glenn Greenwald, great to have you on the show. Great
success with your book.
Glenn Greenwald: I appreciate it.