Our two-tiered justice system

HSBC case shows how the rich and powerful are immune from prosecution

Currently more than 500,000 Americans are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, including tens of thousands of people whose only crime was simple possession of a substance the law states they shouldn’t have. And yet when Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, was determined last week to have laundered $800 million of drug money in violation of U.S. banking laws, nobody was charged with a crime.

The reason: Department of Justice prosecutors decided that bringing criminal charges would pose such a risk to the continued operation of the bank that it would destabilize the entire banking system. Instead HSBC was fined $1.9 billion, which amounts to about five weeks’ profit for the banking behemoth.

The DOJ found that HSBC had spent years committing serious crimes involving money laundering for terrorists as well as drug cartels and moving tainted money for Saudi banks tied to terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. The abuse was so flagrant that Mexican drug cartels would bring cash to HSBC branches in boxes specially constructed to fit through teller windows.

The penalty for top HSBC executives? They will defer part of their bonuses for five years.

This immunization from prosecution for the rich and powerful is nothing new. As Glenn Greenwald, author of With Liberty and Justice for Some, points out, it dates back to President Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardoning of disgraced former President Richard Nixon, who had committed numerous felonies. The idea was that it would be too disruptive to bring the president to justice and he should be pardoned “for the good of the country.”

The DOJ officials who used the same rationale to let HSBC off the hook are the same officials, Greenwald writes, “who previously immunized Bush-era torturers and warrantless eavesdroppers, telecom giants, and Wall Street executives, even as they continue to persecute whistleblowers at record rates and prosecute ordinary citizens—particularly poor and minorities—with extreme harshness for even trivial offenses.”

What we have, in other words, is a system in which, as Greenwald states, “some actors are simply too important and too powerful to punish criminally.” This is an intolerable degree of corruption and lawlessness. Every American should be outraged by it.