Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Turd Passing

Endless. Shameless.

Ivor Bell, arrested and charged in March of 2014 for allegedly aiding and abetting in the 1972 murder of the Belfast widow Jean McConville, has bounced off the surface of the justice system ever since. After a long series of inconclusive court appearances in which prosecutors asked for more time to think about the charges, a Belfast judge finally gave the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland an ultimatum this year: Make a decision or give it up. So we had many versions of this news story in early June of this year, after the PPS told the court they had definitely for sure decided to proceed:

"Ivor Bell to be prosecuted over Jean McConville murder."

That decision, the Irish Times wrote, "has ended mounting uncertainty over the case."

It surely hasn't. After the June 4 "decision," Bell was ordered to return to court on July 16 so the judge and the lawyers on both sides could figure out a date to begin a preliminary inquiry in the case. Today is July 21. You wouldn't know it from the newspapers in Ireland or the UK, but Bell did return to court on July 16 -- where no date was set for a preliminary inquiry. Instead, the PPS asked for another delay in the case.

The prosecutor assigned to prosecute Bell, they explained, is on maternity leave. And the other prosecutor assigned to the case in her absence hasn't had time to read the case files, yet.

For about the fifty thousandth time, I'll say that you can really feel the urgency, here. The criminal justice system in Northern Ireland will not rest until Jean McConville's killers are brought to justi- okay, wait, another prosecutor just went to the bathroom. Try again in October, your honor? Or we could, I don't know, pencil something in for 2020? That year is looking pretty solid for us.

In theory, the case is back in court in two weeks. Now taking bets on how many times the PPS can say they aren't ready before a judge is willing to mercifully put their case out of its misery. The dog continues to eat our homework, your honor.

I asked the PPS press office for comment, and will update if they respond. But they may need some extra time to think about it, for sure.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The PSNI's Urgent Murder Investigation, Continued

Here's an an actual news headline from early July, 2013: "Boston College tapes: PSNI detectives get secret Dolours Price transcripts."

Two years ago, as part of their urgent investigation into the 1972 kidnapping and murder of the Belfast widow Jean McConville, police in Northern Ireland took possession of a set of taped interviews subpoenaed from the archives at Boston College.

Then, in March of last year, Belfast resident Ivor Bell was charged with aiding and abetting in McConville's disappearance. Those charges, not yet scheduled for trial or brought to court for a preliminary hearing, are now fifteen months old – staler than the wedding cake on Miss Havisham's banquet table.

One of the many problems with the possibility that Bell will be successfully prosecuted is a reality of the Boston College tapes that I reported on a long time ago: Boston College doesn't have an identity key, or many of the collection contracts, that would be needed to connect interviewees with their anonymously labeled interviews.

In theory, at least, one of the ways to successfully prosecute Bell would be to connect the tapes to the interviewees. One of the clearest ways to do that – again, in theory – would be to ask the interviewers to identify the interviewees. For tapes with former members of the Provisional IRA, the organization that took McConville from her home and killed her, the interviews were conducted by the former Provisional IRA prisoner and history PhD Anthony McIntyre. That would be the person you would want to question, if you were the police and you hoped to successfully prosecute former members of Irish republican paramilitary organizations.

So the police have now done just that. Anthony McIntyre lives in the Republic of Ireland, out of the direct reach of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, so a pair of Garda detectives appeared at his front door today and attempted to question him on behalf of their colleagues in the north. McIntyre's account is that he politely declined to offer them any answers, and they went away quickly and with equal politeness. And why not? It's not like anything much is at stake, at this point.

Two years after the PSNI took possession of the Boston College tapes, the police have made a desultory attempt to gesture at validating them. In 2015, they tried to ask some questions about the tapes they got in 2013. So they could solve the 1972 murder that they began to investigate in 2011. For the sake of kindness, let us assume that they just take plenty of naps.

We're having an annual development in the McConville murder, now. By 2032, give or take a decade, we could easily have a denouement of some kind.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Politics by Other Means

Here's a transcript of Sunday's 60 Minutes report on Gerry Adams and the murder of Jean McConville. The tell is at the start of the second paragraph, right below the picture: "Recently, old wounds split open when a history project by Boston College uncovered accusations of murder against the man who could be Ireland's next prime minster."

That's the point: The fear that Gerry Adams will be Ireland's next prime minister. It has been nearly a year since Adams was released from police custody, without charges, after being questioned over his role in McConville's death. Today he faces a stale investigation built on a foundation of hearsay from dead people, with a sprinkling of anonymous interviews on tape. Perhaps he'll still be stunt-charged for a while, ahead of the next elections in Ireland, before the charges are allowed to wither up and blow away in court but linger in public memory. In the end, Adams is as likely to go to prison over the murder of Jean McConville as I am.

And so we're left only with the actual point of the whole assault on the archives: 1.) A history project by Boston College 2.) ties a murder to the man who could Ireland's next prime minister.

Four years after the first subpoenas were served in Boston, we have no trial -- but lots of media coverage. As predicted, this is Irish politics, conducted by a police agency in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Department of Justice. This is not why societies have police.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Shameful Prosecutorial Malfeasance In Belfast

The Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has broken its own rules, and embarrassed itself in the process.

Ivor Bell was charged with IRA membership, and aiding and abetting in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, over a year ago. He has returned to court several times since then, and in every instance, the Public Prosecution Service has asked for more time to think about the matter.

Two weeks ago, Bell returned to court – so that prosecutors could ask for two more weeks to think about the case.

This week, with that two week delay having passed, Bell returned to court again – so that prosecutors could yet again ask for another month to think about the case. Not that they promised a decision in another month, natch.

The news reports on this week's hearing say this: "A prosecutor said a meeting with senior counsel was due to take place on April 13 to discuss a 'very lengthy' recommendation from the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) on whether to proceed with the legal action."

More than a year after the PPS brought charges against Bell, they are preparing to have a discussion about "whether to proceed with the legal action."

The PPS has posted its own "Code for Prosecutors" online. This is what it says on pg. 9: "Where there are substantial concerns as to the credibility of essential evidence, criminal proceedings may not be proper as the evidential test may not be capable of being met."

In the case of the supposed evidence against Bell, a set of audio tapes from Boston College involving an anonymous interview subject, the PPS told a Belfast court that it would begin looking for a voice expert who could help them prove that the tapes contain interviews with Bell himself. To be specific, they told the court this important fact seven months after they brought the charges against Bell.

So they threw some shit at a wall, and are hoping – thirteen months later – that they can find a way to make it stick.

The decision to bring charges against Ivor Bell on unreliable evidence was unethical, irresponsible, and unprofessional. At some point, the PPS has to be forced to stop kicking that can down the road. They filed charges without knowing they could prove them. It's time to face that shameful failure.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Happy Birthday to the Charges Against Ivor Bell

On March 18, 2014, the 78 year-old Ivor Bell was charged with having been a member of the Provisional IRA, and with aiding and abetting in the 1972 kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville. Today, March 19, 2015 -- a year and a day later, and 43 years after the crime -- Bell briefly returned to court in Belfast so prosecutors could ask for more time to think about his case.

No hurry, though.

Bell remains the only person charged with a crime as a result of the Belfast Project subpoenas served on Boston College. No one has been charged with actually kidnapping or killing McConville, the stated purpose of the subpoenas, and no suspects have been publicly named by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, though news reports have named Gerry Adams as the PIRA commander who allegedly ordered the killing.

A political effort continues to masquerade as a police investigation.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Highly Private Front-Page News

Below is a letter from an office of the U.S. Department of Justice, denying a FOIA request for copies of the MLAT commissioner's subpoenas served on Boston College last year for Belfast Project interviews with Winston Rea.

While the DOJ refuses to release these subpoenas, the underlying federal court case involving the appointment of an MLAT commissioner -- and the response of Boston College to the subpoenas -- remains hidden from public view. I searched Pacer today for the case (again), and it still doesn't appear.

Absurdly, while the DOJ and the federal courts treat the Winston Rea subpoena (or subpoenas) as a closely held secret, those subpoenas are regularly the topic of news stories in Ireland and the UK, and the subject of a much-discussed legal challenge in British courts. The subpoenas are not a secret -- but the federal government continues to pretend that they are. Note that the secrecy of MLAT commissioner's subpoenas is far from guaranteed, and we now have copies of the subpoenas served on Boston College in 2011. Here's an easy example.

It's long past time for the DOJ, and the courts, to make public the thing that we already know about.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wandering Interviews: A Story Mostly Left Untold

Be Very Afraid

(Updated below with PSNI, State Department, and court responses.)

Stuff happened.

Over the weekend, police detectives returning to Belfast with tapes of newly subpoenaed paramilitary interviews from Boston College found themselves unable to comply with a court order. The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, considering a legal challenge from former loyalist paramilitary leader Winston Rea, had ordered the Police Service of Northern Ireland to take the interview material it had just obtained from federal law enforcement authorities in Boston and deliver it all directly to the U.S. Consulate in Belfast.

While the court considered Rea's appeal, then, the interviews -- supposedly his, though that has yet to be proved -- would remain in the hands of U.S. officials in an American diplomatic post, out of the easy reach of authorities in Northern Ireland. Since the substance of Rea's legal argument has to do with the very legality and appropriateness of the international process by which the PSNI obtained material from an American university, placing the subpoenaed material in a kind of makeshift United States made at least some amount of sense: The material would reach Northern Ireland, but would be taken out of the practical and immediate jurisdiction of its government, held in a foreign diplomatic facility.

Several news stories in different publications then say this, in almost identical terms, about the thing that happened next: "However, those conditions were varied late last night due to difficulties in arranging to have the sealed container lodged with American representatives."

So instead, the subpoenaed Boston College oral history material stayed with authorities in and of Northern Ireland, stored with and guarded by the courts themselves: "Instead, an amended order was made for the tapes to be taken to the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast and placed in secure storage there."

No one has explained those "difficulties" in turning over the interview material to the American consulate, though there's the hint of an explanation in that reference to a "sealed container": There must have been security problems, as officials at the consulate worried about taking custody of a box without being able to look inside it.

The first striking thing, here, is a problem that comes up over and over again in news coverage of the Boston College subpoenas, as vague descriptions from government officials just show up, undigested, in print. What were the difficulties? Where did they happen? A pair of PSNI detectives stood outside the consulate in the cold while a stern-faced consul peeled back the curtains and wordlessly shook his worried head, or what? Who communicated, and what did they communicate? When? Where? How?

The vagueness of detail paints fog across some strange and implausible events. Again, something happened, and we don't know what it was, but there's surely something more interesting to it than this carefully vague depiction of unnamed difficulties occurring in some undiscovered space and time.

First, a consulate never sleeps; it exists in significant part for the purpose of responding to emergencies. A duty officer is always available -- the website for the U.S. Consulate in Belfast tells you how to contact consulate officials in an after-hours emergency. So if the police in Belfast couldn't make arrangements with the American consulate in Belfast -- "late last night," as the stories make a point of saying -- the one thing that couldn't have been the cause is that they just knocked on the front door and nobody answered because it was, like, real late and stuff. Someone communicated something: Police talked to diplomats. Who said what, in what setting?

Second, about that dangerous "sealed container": It was either sealed by the PSNI or by federal law enforcement authorities in Boston (and probably the latter), who as a matter of policy seal evidence for transport. See, for example, "Packaging and Shipping Evidence," pg. 3, in this FBI manual. The container was sealed by law enforcement authorities in Boston, then carried onto an airplane by police detectives. Then it arrived in Belfast, where officials at the American consulate freaked out over the sealed container?

"Look, pal, I don't know what this 'FBI' thing is, but if they sealed this package, I don't want nothin' to do with it." For security reasons, U.S. government officials refused to take possession of a container sealed by U.S. government officials and held continuously in the personal custody of police detectives from the U.K., America's closest ally? Why? They thought maybe Carmen Ortiz was trying to blow them up with a bomb? Is there a Continuity Department of Justice that hasn't laid down its arms, or something?

A more likely scenario, it seems to me, is that the State Department doesn't want to get the PSNI's shit on its hands, and opted out of a scheme they found distasteful and reckless. The subpoenaed material left the U.S., and the U.S. government can't have been sorry to get rid of it; then the police showed up on the American government's doorstep again, looking forlorn and holding the same package the very same U.S. government had just gotten rid of. Yeah, we'll pass, thanks.

Or something else. But whatever that something is, there are at least as many potential political explanations for the consulate's refusal as there are practical explanations about late nights and sealed containers -- and that's if the consulate really refused, which has just been assumed in all of the reporting to date. Did the State Department just refuse to get involved in the Belfast Project subpoenas?

I've been asking both the State Department and the PSNI for a more detailed description of the "difficulties" that prevented the U.S. Consulate in Belfast from taking possession of the material the court ordered the PSNI to deliver to its custody. Neither have answered my questions yet, and neither seem likely to. I've also filed a FOIA request for consulate records. In the meantime, there are journalists in Belfast who do this all day and for a living. Perhaps one of them can penetrate the fog of "difficulties in arranging to have the sealed container lodged with American representatives."

What were the difficulties? Who, what, when, where, and why?

Maybe the story just turns out to be late night bumbling, missed signals and tired refusals over practical concerns. But someone has to tell that story, first, and I'm constantly amazed at these paragraphs of alleged news that don't bother to explain the things they supposedly exist to explain.

It's still true: The things we don't know are more important than the things we do.

UPDATE, Feb. 19: The PSNI press office sends this response to my questions: "This is not a matter for us – it was a direction of the court which was subsequently altered for reasons we are not aware of."

This is not what newspapers in Ireland and the U.K. reported. They reported, vaguely, that the PSNI was turned away by the consulate during late night discussions, forcing the police to tell the courts that they couldn't deposit the material at the consulate, and so forcing the courts to change their order because of the information they got from the police. Now the police say they have no idea why the court changed its order about the destination of the interview materials.

There is a story here, and something that someone isn't telling. 

SECOND UPDATE, Feb. 19: Complete response from the press office of the U. S. State Department: "We cannot comment further on this pending legal matter. We refer you to the Department of Justice for further information."

THIRD UPDATE, Feb. 23: Complete response from the press office for Northern Ireland courts: "The Northern Ireland Courts & Tribunals Service normally refers queries about judicial decisions to the Office of the Lord Chief Justice.  They have advised that the reasoning behind the judicial decision was not discussed in open court and there is therefore nothing on the court record to say why the venue was changed from the US Consulate to the Royal Courts of Justice."

Government by secrecy and sneaking, with no accountability or transparency at all.