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Sept-Oct 2013 , Page 60 

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Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful

By Booth M. Ripke

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With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful

By Glenn Greenwald
Picador (2012)

In his latest book, Glenn Greenwald argues that when it comes to holding the political elite in Washington accountable for their criminal conduct, the notion of equal justice under the rule of law has been abandoned. The criminal laws are simply not applied against our nation’s most powerful elites, and to them, these laws have become “nothing more than advice or recommendation.” The result is an erosion of our only real guarantee against tyranny.

Greenwald proves his thesis by relating facts from a string of quintessentially Washington episodes, starting with the decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon. While many argue that this pardon was the right thing to do, Greenwald challenges the notion that political harmony trumps the need to enforce the rule of law. The idea that public policy considerations trump the rule of law is just another way of saying the rule of law is dead.

After the Nixon pardon, the book examines a laundry list of major Washington events over the last 40 years. Greenwald effectively rolls these events out like a history lesson in executive abuses. Oliver North and Iran-Contra. Alberto Gonzales’ lies under oath. The decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence. The government’s interception of electronic communications after 9/11. Warrantless eavesdropping. Granting immunity to telecommunication companies that helped the government illegally eavesdrop. Lies to justify an illegal war in Iraq. The decision to torture detainees, and to justify that torture with corrupt legal arguments.

One unifying theme that Greenwald draws through each episode is the unwillingness of politicians to hold their predecessors accountable for criminal conduct. He argues that this creates an elite immunity that is self-perpetuating. Politicians do not seek to hold predecessors accountable because they, in turn, do not want to be held accountable either.

These arguments are advanced with unflinching force and in absolute terms, regardless of political party affiliations. Greenwald refers to “Obama justice” as a plan by the Obama administration to protect those who tortured, illegally spied on our own citizens, and invaded another country based on false claims. At the same time, he argues that if someone tries to expose these lawless actions by publishing the truth, the Obama administration treats them as criminals who deserve prosecution. The conclusion is that we live in a country where elites can commit serious crimes in high office, without consequence.

Greenwald is an exceptional writer and his journalistic style of reporting is well-suited to his task. He conveys an impressive level of details across a variety of episodes, while delivering what always remains a consistently easy read.

Unfortunately, this book never strays far from a sequential critique of historical events that support the author’s central thesis. Readers who are looking for a deeper discussion of why many Americans have supported policy decisions not to prosecute criminal conduct by political elites will not find much. The book also glosses over the fact that while political elites are not exposed to the same criminal justice system as everyone else, there is not exactly universal “blanket immunity” either. President Nixon did resign in disgrace. Oliver North was exposed. Corporate and political executives are, at times, prosecuted. Scooter Libby remains a convicted felon.

Despite these gaps, Greenwald does effectively expand his analysis in other areas beyond the political and financial elites. For example, he addresses worthy questions about the media’s own conduct during these criminal episodes. Greenwald argues that too often “media elites” in Washington eschew objectivity in favor of covering for their political bedfellows. This work is best displayed when he denounces established writers such as Joe Klein and Richard Cohen for their attacks on the prosecution of Scooter Libby in a way that sounded like they were trying to protect a friend.

Greenwald’s ability to marshal ample support for the theory that individuals with powerful political and financial interests are not held to the same standards under criminal laws as other Americans will come as no surprise to many readers. If you are looking for a deeper examination of how the refusal to apply the “rule of law” to elites contributes to a broader erosion of justice for everyone, you may be left wanting more. But, the persuasive and thorough nature of Greenwald’s writing still delivers. The book is a compelling read for anyone who believes that the equal enforcement of laws for everyone is the only way to impede the inherent propensity of elites towards tyranny.

About the Reviewer 

Booth M. Ripke is an attorney at Nathans & Biddle LLP in Baltimore, Md.

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