Monday, June 23, 2014

Urgent Murder Investigation (cont.)

On May 22, BBC News reported that detectives in the Police Service of Northern Ireland had decided to pursue new and very broad subpoenas of the Belfast Project archives at Boston College. The BBC reported that news in the present tense, writing that the PSNI "is seeking" all of that archival material.

Today is June 23, and more than a month has passed. Neither the Department of Justice nor Boston College will answer questions from me, anymore, and the PSNI never did in the first place. It's possible that the PSNI is actively pursuing subpoenas, and it's possible that the DOJ is actively preparing those subpoenas. But I searched Pacer, today -- that's the case management system for the federal courts, where case documentation can be accessed and downloaded -- and I can find no sign that new subpoenas have been prepared or served.

Time will tell, but I wondered last month if the PSNI was wagging its dick at critics, in a fit of pique, with a piece of public theater that was designed to produce fear and worry rather than real investigative gains. How often do you see police departments announcing in the newspaper who they're going to raid next week?

In any event, the other shoe does not appear to have dropped, or at least not yet. Let us hope that some politicians and criminal justice bureaucrats have come to their senses.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Thing Discovered to Be What It Is

The legal justice system in Northern Ireland is now discovering something that they might always have known, if they had ever bothered to ask.

Lawyers for Ivor Bell, who stands accused of long-ago IRA membership and complicity in the events leading to the 1972 murder of Belfast widow Jean McConville, have argued before a judge that the oral history interviews being used against their client are subjective and unreliable. They are. Indeed, they must necessarily be all of the things Bell's lawyers say they are. Oral history interviews are valuable to historians precisely because they are entirely subjective, the personally framed stories that people tell about themselves. Subjectivity and unreliable narration aren't a failure of the form; they're an inevitable feature.

In Los Angeles, locked in the archives at the University of California, researchers can find the massive transcript of a long series of interviews conducted with Jack Tenney, a California state legislator during the communist-hunting years of the McCarthy era in the United States. For years, Tenney chaired a committee that found communists under every rock in Hollywood, and nearly every rock everywhere else. "You can no more coexist with communism," Tenney said, "than you can coexist with a nest of rattlesnakes."

There was just one problem for California's leading slayer of far-left monsters: He had been a well-known and longtime activist on the political left. He spent the rest of his life trying to forget that inconvenient past.

The oral history interviews archived at UCLA endlessly reveal the depth of Tenney's later self-deception, as the interviewer leads him through a series of events and asks for his explanation. His membership in the leftist National Lawyers Guild? Well, see, he was sitting in his office when this young man came by and asked for two dollars for some new organization, and Tenney was distracted, so he fumbled for his wallet and paid the initiation fee, not knowing what he was joining. He was later spotted at an NLG convention, wearing a delegate's ribbon on his lapel, because he had checked into the hotel on business without knowing the Guild was meeting there. Then he bumped into some very, very distant acquaintances, who insisted on giving him a ribbon as a friendly gesture, and he didn't want to offend them, so....

Tenney's interviews go on like this for hundreds of pages, revealing a man at war with his own life and trying to talk his way out of his past. The interviews are, in other words, oral history: True in parts, false in parts, often deeply revealing in both. The way a person lies about his own life tells you as much about who he is as the parts that are factually accurate.

The Belfast Project, the oral history interviews of Northern Ireland paramilitary fighters conducted under the aegis of Boston College, could have been a project of enormous value for historians. It would not have been valuable because every word in every interview was true, and no historian would have approached the interviews on those terms. The richness of the project would have been found in its collisions between verifiable fact and proven deception, in the way people told their own stories about the politics of a violent past. The collection would have been an extraordinary resource, but will now be taken apart and destroyed, piece by piece.

That needless act of destruction is taking place because of the breathtaking naivete and laziness of the PSNI's hapless and self-interested detectives, who believed they could make up for a forty-year investigative failure by going to the Burns Library and checking out a set of interviews that someone else bothered to conduct. Police in Northern Ireland apparently believed they could seize a set of academic interviews, type a few pieces into a report for prosecutors, and deliver some justice on the cheap.

Few authorities have ever been more wrong, or more avoidably foolish. Oral history interviews are not police documents. It was stupid to believe they could be.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Yeah, It's Casual, We Don't Need to Protect All That, Like, Murder Investigation Stuff

At the bottom of this post, consolidated into one PDF file, are legal briefs filed today with the U.S. District Court in Boston regarding the request from NBC News to make public the Belfast Project interviews turned over by the Department of Justice to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The government's brief is just plain odd, and seems to undercut the narrative about the PSNI pursuing a serious murder investigation rather than a political effort against the head of Sinn Fein.

But first, BC. The Boston College brief starts with a critical procedural point that the government somehow doesn't bother to make: "On May 20, 2014, a letter dated May 6, 2014, from NBC News to the Court was entered on the docket in this matter. That letter is not a motion, was not signed by a lawyer admitted to practice before this Court, and the Trustees of Boston College (Boston College) were not served with the letter but only became aware of it when counsel received notice that it had been entered on the docket."

And, I mean, yes: NBC News wants to unseal federal court records, so it dropped the judge a line. They don't have lawyers at NBC?

BC's outside lawyer, Jeffrey Swope, goes on to say exactly what you would hope and expect a university to say about confidential archival material, objecting to the release of Belfast Project interviews and interviewee identities.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston, on the other hand, doesn't object to the unsealing of some of the Belfast Project interviews handed over to the PSNI, all of which are supposedly evidence in an ongoing murder investigation:

"The government has no objection to the unsealing of D.10 (7/5/11)1, D.28 (10/3/11), and D.36 (12/27/11). In addition, the government does not object to the unsealing of the sealed sidebar transcript from the hearing on February 1, 2012, except that the names of those persons identified during that sidebar conference should remain under seal. [Sealed Tr. 2/1/12 at pg. 15]. The government opposes the unsealing of D.15 (8/25/11), as it contains interview materials and other documents which were produced by Boston College in response to the MLAT subpoenas but are not otherwise publicly available."

So these are materials subpoenaed as evidence of a deadly serious murder investigation, and the investigation is ongoing, but go ahead and put a bunch of the material (that apparently damns Gerry Adams, cough cough) out on the street?

The government does oppose the unsealing of "certain pleadings filed by the United States which outline the nature and scope of the investigation which gave rise to the MLAT subpoenas," but they object to revealing the nature and scope of the investigation directly over a sentence that says the investigation "involves credible allegations of murder and kidnapping." Don't tell anyone what I'm doing, but I'm investigating a murder. That's a secret, though, so I'm not going to mention it.

The second set of subpoenas delivered back in 2011 were for every interview that mentioned the murder of Jean McConville, and then the PSNI arrested Gerry Adams and Ivor Bell over the murder of Jean McConville and interrogated them -- as Adams said when he was released -- using the Belfast Project interviews. The nature and scope of the investigation would not seem to be terribly secret, at this point, though it would be awfully interesting to see precisely how the British government framed the PSNI's request.

A hearing is scheduled for the courtroom of Judge William Young tomorrow. Here are the BC and DOJ briefs: