Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Seven questions for Glenn Greenwald"

IF YOU are an avid reader of this blog you are familiar with Glenn Greenwald's work. We often link to his award-winning commentary on subjects such as the judiciary, executive power, anti-terrorism policy, and the media. Mr Greenwald is the author a thoughtful and provocative blog, as well as three books. His most recent work, titled "Great American Hypocrites", examines "the manipulative electoral tactics used by the GOP and propagated by the establishment press". We asked him some questions this week on the new administration, anti-terrorism policy, Sonia Sotomayor and the media.
DIA: You were very critical of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies and its use of executive power. You've also criticised the Obama administration for embracing elements of George Bush's approach. What are the critical changes in policy that Barack Obama needs to make in order to differentiate himself from his predecessor in these areas?

Mr Greenwald: Secrecy is the linchpin of executive-power abuse and civil-liberties transgressions. Barack Obama claimed to recognise that when he was seeking the Democratic nomination, constantly vowing that he'd usher in a "new era of transparency". Since taking office, however, he has embraced virtually all of the most radical Bush/Cheney secrecy theories—particularly its version of the "state secrets privilege" that not only allows the government to conceal illegal behaviour, but worse, allows it to prevent courts from judicially reviewing the legality of at behaviour. As an absolute prerequisite, Mr Obama needs to follow through on his recognition, expressed at a press conference in April, that the state secrets privilege as he is using it is too broad, lest he permanently become complicit in covering-up the serious crimes of the Bush administration.

The other most serious transgression is his embrace of the core Bush/Cheney idea that detainees in the name of terrorism can be abducted and then imprisoned indefinitely without charges of any kind. From his attempt to block detainees at Bagram from having any rights at all to his proposal for indefinite detention, Mr Obama is on the verge of institutionalising what had been merely an ad hoc policy of Bush/Cheney: the right of the president to imprison people forever, with no charges. If he does not abandon those efforts, he really is in danger not only of equalling, but exceeding, one of the most damaging aspects of Bush/Cheney: its war on basic precepts of due process.

DIA: Are you optimistic that Mr Obama will eventually make these changes?

Mr Greenwald: It's very hard to say. I don't doubt that Mr Obama faces substantial pressure from very powerful constituencies to maintain these policies, particularly the permanent power factions within the intelligence community and Pentagon. It's also an axiom of political life that politicians don't want to voluntarily reduce their own power—even those powers they criticised when in the hands of other politicians—because they naturally believe they can be trusted to exercise those powers responsibly, for good ends.

Ultimately, Mr Obama will only adhere to his campaign commitments to the extent he is forced to by political pressure. That's why I think it's so vital that those who helped elect him criticise him when warranted and demand accountability. Only that can provide a counterweight to the pressure being exerted on him from the permanent Washington class.

DIA: You have been outspoken on the issue of detainees. Buried in Barack Obama's speech on national security last month was a promise to "establish a legitimate legal framework" for the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Describe the type of framework that you would like to see the president set up.

Mr Greenwald: We already have a framework in place that works perfectly fine. It's called the American criminal-justice system. It has been far more successful than George Bush's military commissions in prosecuting and convicting accused terrorists. The dangers from inventing a new system designed to abridge due process is so much greater than the dangers that a couple of guilty people will go free that it's hard to overstate. The founders recognised 230 years ago that allowing the state to imprison people only when it can convict them of crimes—and overcome substantial hurdles in order to do so—is such an indispensable safeguard against tyranny that we must be willing to accept that some guilty people will go free.

Mr Obama's central campaign pledge in this area was that it was a "false choice" to have to pick between our basic values and our security. If, in the name of terrorism, he abandons that core principle of the American founding—that there's no such thing as indefinite preventive detention without charges—then he will be betraying his central pledge.

DIA: You've applauded Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, but you also say "there are many legitimate questions to raise about Sonia Sotomayor". What questions would you ask if you had the chance to sit down with her?

Mr Greenwald: At this point, the greatest impact a Supreme Court nominee will likely have is no longer in the area of social issues—abortion and gay rights—but executive power. Ms Sotomayor's record, through no fault of her own, is very thin in this area. I'd want to know her views of Hamdi, Hamdan and Boumediene; her general views on the Yoo/Addington Article II theories of the omnipotent executive; and how she sees the pending (in the second circuit) "state secrets" case brought by Maher Arar. Mr Arar was abducted and rendered for torture, only for the US to realise he was completely innocent. The government then blocked him from having a day in court by claiming that what was done to him was a "state secret".

DIA: In your demolition of Jeffrey Rosen (at TNR), you made much of a phoney distinction that's often raised, between "reporting" and "blogging". Is there a better distinction, that might be used helpfully to distinguish between what reporters do and what bloggers do?

Mr Greenwald: I have genuine respect for real reporting—things like what Dana Priest did in exposing CIA black sites and conditions at Walter Reed, or what Charlie Savage did in exposing George Bush's abuse of signing statements to circumvent the law. That's real reporting—finding out the truth, documenting facts, exposing deceit and secrecy by government officials and others with power.

But what establishment journalists typically call "reporting" is nothing of the sort. Often—as was the case with Jeffrey Rosen—it's nothing more than rank gossip-mongering or worthless (or worse) stenography. They speak with politically powerful people and simply write down what they say, uncritically passing it on without bothering to scrutinise if it's true or not. That practice is far worse when the people whose comments they're uncritically amplifying are granted anonymity, because then there's no accountability. That's the Judy Miller practice of journalism which—despite her ignominious reputation—is still the predominant method of what they call "reporting". That's not blogging or reporting: it's just mindless servitude to those in power.

At this point, the distinction between "reporting" and "blogging" has eroded quite a bit. I think the one meaningful distinction is that bloggers are willing to engage in explicit activism—working to defeat certain policies or politicians, writing in pursuit of some political-value system—whereas reporters still maintain the pretense that they are pursuing facts without any bias or political agenda.

DIA: Do you see the media as being tilted towards the left or the right?

Mr Greenwald: The predominant bias of the media isn't really best understood as left or right as much as it is loyalty to power. Journalism ought to be the opposite: it ought to be adversarial to power. But for many reasons—the fact that media stars are now very highly-paid celebrities; they work for the largest corporations which rely on their relationship with the government; they are desperate for access to and favourable treatment from political figures; they see themselves as part of the New York/Washington power elite—they empathise with and are a part of the establishment far more than they are adverse to it.

In general, that translates into a right-wing bias, in that conservatives are generally more geared to serving and glorifying elite institutions and the power that inheres in them. And the alliance that formed in the 1990s between media stars and right-wing operatives, who single-handedly fed the Clinton/Lewinksy scandal, still persists. But I think the overwhelming media bias is far more about serving and revering political power than it is about liberalism or conservatism.

DIA: Do you think that the media markets will organise themselves in such a way as to support the kind of reporting that a self-respecting democracy needs? (It seems obvious that they won't support the kind we have now, but will they support something good enoughor better?)

Mr Greenwald: I'm actually rather optimistic about the potential of technologies—principally the internet and all of its accompanying features—to enable real reporting even as newspapers die. The ability to access information is so much greater now, the resources required to obtain that information and to build an audience are so much less, that everything really is rapidly democratising. Financial models are being developed to support new forms of journalism and I think that will continue.

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