THE BLOG
12/18/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Justice: Washington, D.C.-style

On Veteran's Day this year, I visited those who had served this nation but are now serving time in Pennsylvania's Graterford Penitentiary. Former "shipmates" of mine, almost half are there for a drug-related crime. I watched with respect as each of the too-numerous incarcerated veterans was called up by name while several inmates softly hummed the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The silent prison population then rose as one to clap thunderously as the last prisoner strode up and then turned, pride on his sorrowful face.

I thought about them today, and wondered who would join them -- but not from the ranks of the recently returned Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. For some of them, their fates are unfortunately sealed: their homelessness is higher than it was for our Vietnam or Korean War vets; their jobless rate is higher than it is for our civilians; and over one-third have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or another mental illness. In talking with our veterans about how they got to Graterford prison -- PTSD to drug addiction to crime -- it seems astonishing that today's government would approve psychotropic drugs for over 100,000 warriors as they re-deploy even though the Federal Drug Administration has not approved many of these drugs for either PTSD or for those under the age of 25. Likewise, how could the Senate block a veterans job bill of $1 billion -- the same senators who sent us to war at the cost to our debt of over $1 trillion?

No, there is another group I thought might be joining my fellow veterans in prison today because they were involved in the same kinds of drug crimes that imprisoned so many veterans, including either moving drug money or laundering it -- those at HSBC bank. However, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer told us why our government would not prosecute this special group:

If you prosecute one of the largest banks in the world, do you risk that people will lose jobs, other financial institutions and other parties will leave the bank, and there will be some kind of event in the world economy?

In deciding not to prosecute HSBC bank -- with $2.5 trillion in assets and $38 billion in profits the last two years -- for laundering hundreds of millions in drug profits and moving hundreds of millions more to illegally help Iran and other terrorist financiers, Breuer said the Justice Department considered "the collateral consequences."

In Graterford penitentiary, Vietnam veterans speak of the consequences of their "collateral damage" -- such as PTSD -- that led to their joblessness and eventual crime. With them are young veterans whom our government sent to fight terrorism overseas after 9/11. But to a man, each veteran said he had no excuse for the crime he committed.

How then does our government weigh justice for the warrior fighting terrorism compared to justice for the bank officials abetting terrorism? Or determine fairness for the veteran carrying thousands in drug money with the bank executives' laundering of $1.5 billion as accomplices of drug and terror cartels?

The "collateral consequences" for a young man or woman in conflict can be devastating: if they return from war, too often their mental and physical disabilities, joblessness, addiction and homelessness can lead to criminal sentencing, after which veteran benefits are discontinued and Veteran Administration policy even prevents the transfer of their medical record to the prison system. The "collateral damage" for HSBC was limited: a $1.9 billion corporate fine out of its $22 billion profits last year but no criminal prosecution. One elected official said that, "The HSBC settlement sends a powerful wake-up call...". Unfortunately, the message is that the cost for someone fighting the war of terror is greater than the cost for supporting terror.

Imprisoned veterans rightly say that they have no excuse; but neither does our country for not better addressing the "collateral consequences" of their service that could prevent their incarceration. This failure of accountability rings all the more loudly when our government then says that someone like HSBC is "too big" to prosecute. A 1952 Wall Street Journal article titled "Hobson's Choice" has words that are timeless, even today in reflecting on why the largest deficit currently in Washington is not the fiscal deficit, but the trust deficit:

...with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability... It is cruel, this accountability...But the choice is that or an end to responsibility and finally... an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do.

The veterans in Graterford penitentiary were once accountable to this nation, and now are accounting for themselves. How can our government fail to do the same for HSBC, and others, just because they are "too big"?

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