SEC’s Mary Jo White Approves of Torture

It might seem bizarre to solicit the view of a financial regulator on torture. But not only did this happen but the regulator was queried about the real deal, and more than once. The reason in SEC chairman Mary Jo White’s case is that in her prior life, she prosecuted terrorism cases, such as a 1993 plot to bomb the UN. And the tacit assumption was that if Mary Jo White approved of torture, um, the firm handling of foreign fanatics, she’d be tough with crooks in in the moneyed classes too. From FAIR’s blog last April (hat tim Mark Ames):

In a new piece, Time magazine (4/3/14) is trying to show that Securities & Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White will be tough on crooked bankers. But the example that the piece leads off with as evidence of this is downright bizarre: White supports force-feeding Guantanamo prisoners.

Time reporter Massimo Calabresi cheers White for being tough but not partisan–he notes that “she has also lifted barriers on businesses, to the dismay of some liberals.” But it’s the opening paragraph that really stands out.

Calabresi writes:

There is a room at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay where hunger-striking Al-Qaeda suspects are strapped to chairs and force-fed through tubes in their noses. Mary Jo White is one of the few outsiders to have seen this in operation, watching as more than a dozen inmates had their meals administered to them. White went to the prison at the behest of President Barack Obama in 2009 to report on conditions there. Rather than confirm allegations of torture from human-rights groups and the UN, she concluded that the force-feedings were humane. And what was her general impression of Gitmo? Sitting in her sprawling, light-filled office overlooking the US Capitol, White sounds like a prosecutor. “It was enormously satisfying to see how well run the facility was,” she says…

White also once wrote that she didn’t think waterboarding was illegal. (Read a refutation from Human Rights First–11/15/07.) Would that also bolster her get-tough credentials?

Yves here. Read that again. This is not approval of torture by someone who doesn’t know what it looks likes. This is someone who was in the same room when it was done repeatedly and said it was just ducky. And this video would hew very closely to what Mary Jo White saw, since it used standard Gitmo procedures:

Now I have to admit I was taken with the story of White as a tough prosecutor, not based on stories like this (yikes) but on her record at the Department of Justice and the endorsement of people who’d worked with her like Neil Barofsky as well as other respected, skeptical lawyers like John Coffee of Columbia. But we’ve seen the reverse from her so far. Rather than pick someone like Barofsky to be head of enforcement, she selected attorneys who’d represented Corporate America. Her first act in office was to approve lifting of a ban on general solicitation by hedge funds. Outgoing SEC chairman Mary Shapiro refused to touch it, concerned that it would hurt her legacy. Despite the Michael Lewis generated firestorm over high frequency trading, White refused to look at the fact that the SEC caused it (thank you Rule NMS), much the less take meaningful corrective measures.

In an almost unheard of rebuke, a fellow Democratic party SEC commissioner, Kara Stein, has gone to war with Mary Jo White, with the general theme that the SEC is being lax on enforcement. For instance, Stein, backed by Elizabeth Warren, is opposed to the SEC practice of waving additional sanctions that are supposed to kick in automatically in the case of certain types of securities law violations. Stein succeeded in changing procedures so that SEC staff could not issues these waiver on its own recognizance, but needed the approval of the commissioners. She then escalated the matter with fellow commissioner Luis Aguilar by blocking Bank of America’s $16.7 settlement over mortgage-backed securities investor misrepresentations. The SEC and Bank of America finally reached a deal that puts the bank on probation and subjects it to tougher monitoring of conduct than has been the case in past settlements.

What does this incident signify about Mary Jo White, and many members of what passes for the elites in the US? Let us not forget that White was not only all in for waterboarding and force feeding, but her approval for Gitmo was simply assumed. Yet let us not forget its sorry history: it was created to evade habeas corpus requirements, it was full of low-value detainees who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (see Australia’s David Hicks as an example). But rather than admit that pretty much all of them were inconsequential, the US refused to return them to their homes or resettle them for reasons that to this date have not been explained (this seems to be yet another case of a distorted idea of national prestige making a bad situation worse). Recall that Obama had said he’d shut down Gitmo as one of his first actions in office and then repudiated that promise.

Mary Jo White was and presumably still is willing to defend conduct that is a violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the US signed in 1994. Various experts say that the action revealed in the Senate report on CIA torture merits prosecutions. But someone like White was willing when some US abuses were visible and earning well-deserved international opprobrium, to stand up and help the Administration whitewash them. And while she makes the occasional tough-guy remark, such as her testimony to Congress about private equity misconduct, the ongoing row between White and Kara Stein says that White sees her role as defending established institutions. Insider trading, the one area where the SEC has maintained some muscle, is uncontroversial because pursuing it threatens no one in power.

And in a perverse way, this distortion of enforcement makes sense. For instance, the objection to Stein’s and Aguilar’s efforts to have the automatic sanctions against Bank of America take effect was they were designed to be used only against small fry. In other words, the big boys were assumed to be basically honorable so that no such punishments would ever be necessary. But as anyone who is long enough in tooth knows, the idea that the large and influential should get a pass is an invention of the post Watergate era (see Glenn Greenwald’s And Justice for Some for the long-form treatment). Yes, the powerful often get off because they can pull huge favors and hire better attorneys. But in the old days, the overwhelming majority of people would have seen that as an unfortunate defect of the system that was hard to correct for. And back then, there were also considerable informal sanctions in the upper strata against bad conduct, namely, that you’d be shunned by pretty much everyone in your social circle.

White thus symbolizes the new order. The underlying logic of her implicit defense of Gitmo and her “torture isn’t torture” justification of force feeding is the same reasoning used in some quarters to justify the failure to prosecute bankers: that it would be destabilizing to institutions and therefore potentially to the sacrosanct financial system. That argument is not only an insult to the intelligence of the public (having possible criminals in senior positions puts the bank at risk and erodes confidence and support) but has been shown conclusively in practice to be false. The Bank of England forced the departure of the chairman, CEO, and president of Barclays, and the bank carried on just fine without them. So just as the Minsky dynamic, that stability generates risky behavior, which then leads to instability, so too does the idea that major institutions must be protected at all costs cripples them and de-legitimizes government generally.

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  1. pretzelattack

    she’s a member of the club; it’s a big club, and we’re not in it. nor are gitmo detainees.

  2. steviefinn

    Yes it does appear that the English branch of this club is also untouchable & actively protected by the police. The woman who took this photograph of a prominent member turning up for a torture session – seemingly out of his head – was arrested for ‘ abusive behaviour ‘. – maybe he & Mary Jo should could form a mutually beneficial relationship. Whatever floats your boat I say, but people like these with their status of being above the law, who protect others like them, are slowly sinking ours

  3. DJG

    Not only is she incompetent, she’s a criminal. And it is for reasons like this, being sent to Guantanamo by Obama to witness torture, that the DOJ under the feckless Eric Holder will not prosecute. Too many people from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations would be inconvenienced by having to go to court to defend their actions. (And don’t forget that Clinton was heavily involved in “extraordinary rendition,” that is, outsourcing torture, so that Hillary Clinton is more than tainted.)

  4. Camelotkidd

    Judge Richard Posner, who as a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, helpfully explained why the laws are different for different classes, in a 1985 article in the Columbia Law Review:

    This means that the criminal law is designed primarily for the nonaffluent; the affluent are kept in line, for the most part, by tort law. This may seem to be a left-wing kind of suggestion (“criminal law keeps the lid on the lower classes”), but it is not. It is efficient to use different sanctions depending on an offender’s wealth.

  5. PaulHarveyOswald


    “…the idea that the large and invention should get a pass…” s/b “…the idea that the large and powerful should get a pass…” ?

    1. diptherio

      One of many. After awhile you just have to let them go. We know what she means, even if it isn’t always exactly how it comes out. Maybe if enough people put money in the tip-jar with a “for proof-reader” note attached, Yves’ll be able to hire someone to clean it up. In the meantime, just try to ignore them…that’s my advice anyway.

  6. RUKidding

    Thanks for the info. Color me utterly unsurprised; rather I’d be more gob-smacked if this human excrement actually exhibited anything remotely akin to morals or a conscience. Maybe these power-fluffers at one time had some sort of commendable personality traits. I have no idea. But the reality is that the world is now run by psycopaths and sociopaths, and apparently the more ruthlessly perverted and debased you are, the more you rise on the rungs of power. At least, that’s my take-away.

    Not surprising and that’s how and why Torture was endorsed and approved of. These scumbags all knew it was happening – as did any peon who took a few moments to do more in-depth research. Gitmo, Bagram, Abu Gahraib – when did we NOT know that Torture was being inflicted? DiFi stands on her hind legs and brays out plausible deniability for herself, W, dick the Cheney, et al. Oh really? Gimme a break.

    Sure Mary Jo White knew and approved. That’s how she rolls. And that’s why she’s Chair of the SEC.

    Got it.

  7. susan the other

    It is difficult, now at the end of time, to make up a story that makes sense of everything that is going on. Mary Jo is such a weird little tough girl, ever loyal to her cause, with her actions being so contrary to everything good and honorable. But even looking directly at it, it is still unbelievable (as in everyone wants to deny this crap is happening) that democracy and capitalism are being rescued by totalitarianism and modern feudalism.

  8. crips, bloods and feds

    Looks like we got another scumbag to ship off to the Hague for trial. As the treaty body for the ICCPR put it,

    “The State party should ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of THOSE WHO PROVIDED LEGAL PRETEXTS FOR MANIFESTLY ILLEGAL ACTS should also be established.” (emphasis added to get it through Mary Joe White’s thick skull)

    Acquiescence to torture breaches the Convention Against Torture. Acquiescence to torture is a prerequisite for elite US government status. There’s a lot to be said for Francis Boyle’s point that the US government as a whole is a criminal enterprise. Just like other gang-bangers, crime is your initiation.

  9. lambert strether

    Cowardice and toadyism seem to be highly correlated with membership in the pro-torture set. Great catch, Yves.

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