Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Slow, Quiet Death of The Rule of Law

There's a scene in the final film version of the Jason Bourne trilogy (yes, I love that stuff, and yes, I know it's fiction) in which the Director of the CIA is called before Congress to answer on charges he broke the law in authorizing the secret program within the agency that operated like an autonomous hit squad, answerable only to the few senior agents who knew it existed. That scene was juicy satisfaction the first time I watched it several years back, but upon catching it on late-night television a few weeks ago, it struck me as quaint.

Quaint and antiquated.

The whole notion now that the senior agents of the CIA are answerable to the people of the country they serve (via their representatives) seems childishly naive. How can we hold them accountable when we can't even figure out what the hell their roles are anymore?

From today's New York Times:
President Obama’s decision to send an intelligence chief to the Pentagon and a four-star general to the Central Intelligence Agency is the latest evidence of a significant shift over the past decade in how the United States fights its battles — the blurring of lines between soldiers and spies in secret American missions abroad. [...]

The result is that American military and intelligence operatives are at times virtually indistinguishable from each other as they carry out classified operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some members of Congress have complained that this new way of war allows for scant debate about the scope and scale of military operations. In fact, the American spy and military agencies operate in such secrecy now that it is often hard to come by specific information about the American role in major missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya and Yemen.
Clearly, the daily operations of our intelligence agency and military are not something we want to advertise, but the murkier and more complex the arena becomes that they work in, the easier it becomes for corruption and criminal activity to fester. Being held accountable requires first and foremost clear rules and regulations, to protect the agents and soldiers as much as the public.

But this is just the latest step in what I'm beginning to sense is a slow, quiet death of the rule of law in the US. Oh, I know, that if you have enough money and clever enough lawyers, it has always been possible to get away with anything here, even murder. But even such cases actually underscored the importance of the rule of law (you had to beat the rule, in the courts, to get away with it).

More and more, though, if you know the right people (i.e., you line the right pockets), you can get away with it without ever being hauled before a judge and jury. Just look at the economic crisis. From Matt Taibbi's article for Rolling Stone "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?":
Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail. Nobody, that is, except Bernie Madoff, a flamboyant and pathological celebrity con artist, whose victims happened to be other rich and famous people.

The rest of them, all of them, got off. Not a single executive who ran the companies that cooked up and cashed in on the phony financial boom — an industrywide scam that involved the mass sale of mismarked, fraudulent mortgage-backed securities — has ever been convicted. Their names by now are familiar to even the most casual Middle American news consumer: companies like AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Most of these firms were directly involved in elaborate fraud and theft. Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. What's more, many of these companies had corporate chieftains whose actions cost investors billions — from AIG derivatives chief Joe Cassano, who assured investors they would not lose even "one dollar" just months before his unit imploded, to the $263 million in compensation that former Lehman chief Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld conveniently failed to disclose. Yet not one of them has faced time behind bars.
Other than Madoff, none of them has ever faced criminal or even civil charges...nor are they likely to, not even Richard Fuld.

I was talking with an arts and philosophy professor the other day who noted a disturbing trend among his younger students. They didn't believe anything they saw on TV or read in any source could be viewed as truth or trusted. Everything is suspect, all the time. And in a world where everything is suspect, the motivation to follow the rules yourself disappears. You'd be a sucker to do so.

It's understandable. I find myself leaning the same direction. If, for example, you assume you can trust something you read, but you later learn that your source had been framed by a hard core political agenda, initially leaving you with the exact opposite impression of what actually is the case, you begin further to doubt everything you read. "What is the agenda of this other source?" you wonder. All of which would make for more discerning news consumers, except: our skepticism is further exacerbated by the sampling method of news consumption that's grown possible with the Internet. You read something online, but you have no reason to pay any attention to the original source of the news, you also miss the original author's biases and agendas. In other words, because more and more you consume without discrimination, you have to take it all with a grain of salt. Once you begin doing that, to save time, you begin to assume it's all bullsh*t.

So you combine a generation without any faith in what they're told, seeing the rule of law being completely ignored by the most powerful and wealthy members of society, and, well, you train them to understand that the whole thing is a free-for-all and that they would be fools to not just take what they can for themselves. This is not a recipe for a brighter future.

"Win the Future" the President has apparently decided his new campaign slogan is going to be. Someone should tell him how uber-Orwellian that sounds. Even someone as dimwitted as Sarah Palin was quickly able to point out that the initials of that slogan reveal how it's most likely to be received.

You can't win the future, Mr. Obama, until you and the other leaders of this country work to restore faith in the rule of law. With your new appointments to head the CIA and Department of Defense, for example, you need to implement much clearer means of accountability. The corruption and criminal activity that is highly likely to result with the creation of such blurring of the lines may not emerge during your Presidency, but you can bet, human nature being what it is, that its seeds will be planted then. Therefore, the notion that they're accountable to you (with the implication that we can trust you) is meaningless.

Also, can your order a spine implant for the SEC while you're at it?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

Now I'm going back to bed. I was thinking the same thoughts while reading it - before my free subscription ran out for the month. We have a festering government accountable to those that support it with money and power. Even the all powerful Executive is ultimately muted.
Ok, I must destroy this laptop and move to a new location. (Tredstone Geek)

4/28/2011 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

Right on.

4/28/2011 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Bernard Klevickas said...

This isn't President Obama's fault.

Capitalism is a Ponzi scheme on a vast scale in which money and power is fed upward to the top with small trickles downward.
The criminals here will get away with it just like Manhattan won't be given back to Native Americans or reparations from slavery will never happen.
The best we can do is see the system for what it is.
This is NOT some claim that Communism is better, but that there NEEDS to be a capitalism with a small "C" with strong social programs and support for the small entrepreneur rather than for Big Business.

4/28/2011 01:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The best justice for the avarice and hubris of the people running those financial institutions would have been their self-inflicted economic ruin. The best check on the military would be to restrict its mandate to defense of the borders and the execution of constitutionally declared wars. The best assurance that the CIA will never succumb to corruption and criminality would be for it to not exist.

Vote Ron Paul.

4/29/2011 01:06:00 PM  

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