Glenn Greenwald: Woman Imprisoned for Life for Minor Drug Offense; Banking Giant Immune to Justice for Massive Drug Laundering
Asia-focused bank HSBC said on Tuesday it would pay US authorities a record $1.92 billion to settle allegations of money laundering that were said to have helped Mexican drug cartels, terrorists and Iran.
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The US is the world's largest prison state, imprisoning more of its citizens than any nation on earth, both in absolute numbers andproportionally. It imprisons people for longer periods of time, more mercilessly, and for more trivial transgressions than any nation in the west. This sprawling penal state has been constructed over decades, by both political parties, and it punishes the poor and racial minorities at overwhelmingly disproportionate rates.
But not everyone is subjected to that system of penal harshness. It all changes radically when the nation's most powerful actors are caught breaking the law. With few exceptions, they are gifted not merely with leniency, but full-scale immunity from criminal punishment. Thus have the most egregious crimes of the last decade been fully shielded from prosecution when committed by those with the greatest political and economic power: the construction of a worldwide torture regime, spying on Americans' communications without the warrants required by criminal law by government agencies and the telecom industry, an aggressive war launched on false pretenses, and massive, systemic financial fraud in the banking and credit industry that triggered the 2008 financial crisis.
This two-tiered justice system was the subject of my last book, "With Liberty and Justice for Some", and what was most striking to me as I traced the recent history of this phenomenon is how explicit it has become. Obviously, those with money and power always enjoyed substantial advantages in the US justice system, but lip service was at least always paid to the core precept of the rule of law: that - regardless of power, position and prestige - all stand equal before the blindness of Lady Justice.
It really is the case that this principle is now not only routinely violated, as was always true, but explicitly repudiated, right out in the open. It is commonplace to hear US elites unblinkingly insisting that those who become sufficiently important and influential are - and should be - immunized from the system of criminal punishment to which everyone else is subjected.
Worse, we are constantly told that immunizing those with the greatest power is not for their good, but for our good, for our collective good: because it's better for all of us if society is free of the disruptions that come from trying to punish the most powerful, if we're free of the deprivations that we would collectively experience if we lose their extraordinary value and contributions by prosecuting them.
This rationale was popularized in 1974 when Gerald Ford explained why Richard Nixon - who built his career as a "law-and-order" politician demanding harsh punishments and unforgiving prosecutions for ordinary criminals - would never see the inside of a courtroom after being caught committing multiple felonies; his pardon was for the good not of Nixon, but of all of us. That was the same reasoning hauled out to justify immunity for officials of the National Security State who tortured and telecom giants who illegally spied on Americans (we need them to keep us safe and can't disrupt them with prosecutions), as well as the refusal to prosecute any Wall Street criminals for their fraud (prosecutions for these financial crimes would disrupt our collective economic recovery).
A new episode unveiled on Tuesday is one of the most vivid examples yet of this mentality. Over the last year, federal investigators found that one of the world's largest banks, HSBC, spent years committing serious crimes, involving money laundering for terrorists; "facilitat[ing] money laundering by Mexican drug cartels"; and "mov[ing] tainted money for Saudi banks tied to terrorist groups". Those investigations uncovered substantial evidence "that senior bank officials were complicit in the illegal activity." As but one example, "an HSBC executive at one point argued that the bank should continue working with the Saudi Al Rajhi bank, which has supported Al Qaeda."