WashPost: criminal law is not for political elites

Post Editors have a long tradition of demanding leniency and even immunity for those with the greatest power

Topics: Washington Post,

(updated below – Update II)

The Washington Post Editors work in a city and live in a nation in which huge numbers of poor and minority residents are consigned to cages for petty and trivial transgressions of the criminal law — typically involving drugs — and pursuant to processes that are extremely tilted toward the StatePost Editors virtually never speak out against that, if they ever have.  But that all changes — that indifference disappears — when political elites are targeted for prosecution, even for serious crimes:

The Post Editors, July 3, 2007:

IN COMMUTING I. Lewis Libby’s prison sentence yesterday, President Bush took the advice of, among others, William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who wrote on the opposite page last month that Mr. Libby should neither be pardoned nor sent to prison. We agree that a pardon would have been inappropriate and that the prison sentence of 30 months was excessive. . . . Add to that Mr. Libby’s long and distinguished record of public service, and we sympathize with Mr. Bush’s conclusion “that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive.”

The Post Editors, October 27, 2007:

The biggest sticking point [in agreeing to a new FISA bill] concerns the question of retroactive immunity from lawsuits for communications providers that cooperated with the administration’s warrantless surveillance program. As we have said, we do not believe that these companies should be held hostage to costly litigation in what is essentially a complaint about administration activities.

The Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, August 30, 2009:



[T]his is also a nation where two political parties compete civilly and alternate power peacefully. Regimes do not seek vengeance, through the courts or otherwise, as they succeed each other. Were Obama to criminally investigate his predecessor for what George W. Bush believed to be decisions made in the national interest, it could trigger a debilitating, unending cycle. . . . There is a better, though not perfect, solution, one that the administration reportedly considered, rejected and should consider again: a high-level, respected commission to examine the choices made in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and their consequences. . . . The alternative, for Obama, is a series of debilitating revelations, prosecutions and arguments that could drip-drip-drip through the full length of his presidency.

The Post Editors, November 28, 2010:

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) schemed to get around a Texas law prohibiting corporate contributions to political campaigns . . .  .Mr. DeLay’s conduct was wrong. It was typical of his no-holds-barred approach to political combat. But when Mr. DeLay, following the conviction, assailed “the criminalization of politics,” he had a fair point.

The Post Editors, June 3, 2011:

LET’S STIPULATE: There are very likely good grounds to prosecute deposed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. . . . The decision by Egypt’s ruling military council and state prosecutors to begin a trial of the former strongman on Aug. 3 — before the country holds its first democratic elections — is nevertheless a mistake.

The Post Editors, today:

[W]e would not be particularly troubled by the effort to impose a fine [on John Edwards]. But a criminal case based on this novel application of the law goes too far. . . . Mr. Edwards is a cad, to put it mildly. His deplorable conduct would appear to have ended a once promising political career. It is troubling that the Justice Department would choose to devote its scarce resources to pursuing this questionable case.

In some of these cases (Libby, Mubarak), the Post couches its defense of political elites in terms of concerns about the process while claiming they’re receptive to the possibility of punishment.  In others (Edwards), the concerns they raise are not invalid.  But whatever else is true, Post Editors are deeply and almost invariably disturbed when political elites are subjected to criminal accountability for their wrongful acts, but wholly indifferent — if not supportive — when ordinary Americans are mercilessly prosecuted for far less serious wrongdoing.

And it’s not just Post Editors, but their stable of Op-Ed columnists, who reflexively defend political elites when they break the law.  The late Dean of the Washington Press Corps, David Broder, was one of the first and most vocal advocates of one of the earliest expressions of elite immunity:  Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, and Broder repeated that defense in 2006 upon Ford’s death (“I thought and wrote at the time that he was well justified to spare the country further struggling with the Nixon legacy”).  The Post‘s Broder also vigorously defended President Obama’s decision to oppose prosecution of Bush officials:  ”he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government.  And he was right when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats who devised and justified the Bush administration practices.”

The Post‘s current roster of columnists is equally devoted to defending political elites who get caught breaking the law.  See, for instance: David Ignatius (opposing torture prosecutions as the provenance of “liberal score-settlers”); Ruth Marcus (defending Reagan’s pardon of FBI agents who engaged in illegal domestic spying and opposing torture and eavesdropping prosecutions for Bush officials); and Richard Cohen (defending Bush 41 pardon of Casper Weinberger ["Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me"], opposing Lewis Libby’s conviction ["neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off"], and opposing torture prosecutions ["we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives -- and maybe were -- and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted"].

The political satirist Finley Peter Dunne famously said that the most valuable role of journalism is that it “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  The Post — speaking on behalf of the establishment political culture it represents — has perfected the art of doing exactly the opposite.

* * * * *

I believe I recall — though cannot find and thus cannot say with certainty — that the Post Editorial Page and/or one of its business columnists also opposed criminal investigations of Wall Street for its role in the 2008 financial crisis and the mortgage fraud scheme.  If someone finds and posts the link to that in the comment section (or emails me), I’ll add it.

 

UPDATE:  I omitted numerous relevant examples, which was necessary because elite immunity is basically the guiding religion of The Washington Post and D.C. political culture.  The very first commenter, Ahzeld, adds this recent example, from the Post Editors on May 31:

AGENTS FROM the FBI arrested Abdullah al-Kidd at Dulles International Airport in 2003. Mr. Kidd, who was headed to Saudi Arabia to study, was wanted as a material witness in an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Mr. Kidd, a U.S. citizen whose parents and wife, also U.S. citizens, all resided in the United States, was held for 16 days in three different facilities and kept in cells that were lighted 24 hours a day; he was strip-searched multiple times. After his release, he was subjected to domestic travel restrictions for two years, forced to report his whereabouts and submit to in-home visits from a probation officer.

Mr. Kidd sued former attorney general John D. Ashcroft after the government neither charged him nor called him as a witness, arguing that Mr. Ashcroft had violated his constitutional rights by knowingly misusing the material witness warrant to detain him.On Tuesday, a unanimous Supreme Court handed federal law enforcement a victory by ruling that Mr. Kidd was barred from suing Mr. Ashcroft. It is the right decision . . . In 2003, at the time of Mr. Kidd’s arrest, no court had squarely addressed the issue of whether a material witness warrant could be used to hold an individual suspected of terrorist activity. As such, there was no way for Mr. Ashcroft to know conclusively whether such an action contravened the Constitution.

If there’s a powerful political (or financial) elite being subjected to the criminal process — a process that is meant only for the low-level rabble selling drugs on the corner — The Washington Post will be there contriving excuses and justifications for what they’ve done, or at least spouting reasons they should not be punished.

 

UPDATE II:  In comments, rollotomasi points to this April 28, 2010 Post Editorial which supports the recollection I had: in it, Post Editors defend Goldman Sachs from what it derisively calls “the blame game” and argues that the effort to ascribe culpability to the investment bank for the 2008 financial crisis ”does not strike us as a terribly useful or even accurate analysis of the crisis.”  Leave Goldman Sachs alone!, cry the servants of power masquerading as “journalists.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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