|Be Very Afraid
(Updated below with PSNI, State Department, and court responses.)
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.