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. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Damning a Peacemaker

The otherwordly quality of the PSNI's new "investigation" into Winston "Winkie" Rea is captured neatly this week in a sentence from this RTE story: "An international request for the tapes said police have information that Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando whose interviews would assist investigations into those crimes."

Good Lord! The police have information that Winston "Winkie" Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando!

Keep this to yourself, but I also have information that Winston Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando -- it's on Wikipedia, which goes so far as to say he was its leader. Someone rush this new information to the PSNI right away, so they can investigate it.

Similar information on the origins and leadership of this obscure organization can be found in no more than many dozens of books and articles published in the last twenty years.

When books and news stories specifically describe Winston Rea, they reveal a warrior who turned firmly against political violence -- a peacemaker in a serious and lasting way, and the son-in-law of another warrior who came to renounce war. "Winkie is an example of those who fought the war and those who started and continued to build the peace," a unionist political leader told the Belfast Telegraph this week. 

Pursuing Rea as a criminal, the PSNI appears to have used his presence in peace talks against him. One of the accusations laid out against Rea in recent court proceedings is that he "met with former British Prime Minister John Major in 1996" -- in between the declaration of a loyalist ceasefire and the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement -- proving that he was a member of a paramilitary organization because he had the standing to negotiate on behalf on one. He met with government officials to end a war, your honor, so we know he's a thug.  

Rea was also a regular presence in the Castle Buildings in April of 1998, and this article from 2000 described him as "a member of the PUP's Good Friday Agreement negotiating team." So maybe that can be held against him too, and eventually charged as another crime.

Having made peace, Rea has worked to keep it. "There have been significant attempts by former paramilitaries, including Winston Rea and Jackie McDonald, to deglamorize conflicts to young people as a means of reducing their vulnerability to involvement," reads one account.

This is the person the PSNI is now supposedly pursuing as a criminal, decades later. It may be a course permitted under the law -- but it's monstrously stupid policy, and a political course that spits in the face of an entire generation of serious people who found a way to stop killing each other. It really is a picture from Northern Ireland you thought you'd never see.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Be Vewy Quiet

We're Hunting Wabbits!

On Friday, a barrister representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland shat all over...the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In open court. But no one seems to have noticed.

Police officials have publicly denied that their request for a new subpoena of archived Belfast Project interviews constitutes a "fishing expedition." But Winston Rea, whose interviews are the target of that subpoena, has asked the courts in the U.K. to prohibit the PSNI from taking possession of the subpoenaed material -- so police officials and prosecutors have been forced to appear in a Belfast courtroom to explain the nature and purpose of the subpoena they have asked American authorities to serve on Boston College. Here's how the BBC reports the comments from the PSNI's barrister:
"There are obvious reasonable grounds for suspecting offences have been committed," he said.

"Whether or not the applicant is the individual who has committed those, it's quite clear the police have active lines of inquiry in respect of murder, attempted murder and robbery."

He said the PSNI is seeking to advance inquiries into serious crime spanning three decades up to the late 1990s.

"Regardless of who committed these offences there are victims, there are those bereaved, and some of them have written to the court expressing an interest in the issue," he added.
So the PSNI is pursuing Winston Rea's interviews not because of a generalized fishing expedition, ladies and gentlemen, but rather because of a laser-focused inquiry into some precisely and narrowly defined crimes that took place over the course of thirty years -- the longest murder ever? a slow-motion bank robbery? an attack on a glacier? -- and that Winston Rea didn't actually commit.

Whether or not the applicant is the individual who has committed those. Regardless of who committed these offences.

The police have now said in a public setting that they sought a subpoena of Winston Rea's interviews in order to investigate murders and robberies not committed by Winston Rea. This is serious?

Monday, February 2, 2015

PSNI: Back to the Dead End

One strange fact underlying the new Belfast Project subpoena originated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and served on Boston College by American prosecutors: The PSNI investigative unit that requested the first Boston College subpoenas in 2011 no longer exists, and destroyed itself politically with its sloppy and reckless approach to the past. So now a new police unit seems to be traveling down a road that was a literal dead end for its ruined predecessor, although there are also some questions about which part of the PSNI is managing the new subpoena.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET), established in 2005, was staffed by contractors – many reportedly drawn from their prior service in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Protestant-dominated police agency replaced by the PSNI. It was the HET that asked for subpoenas of Belfast Project materials in 2011, supposedly as an effort to solve the case of Jean McConville's still-unsolved 1972 kidnapping and murder.

In 2013, a damning report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary found the HET to be unmoored and adrift, operating in an "absence of coherent and prescriptive policies." 

But the police unit tasked with investigating the violent past in Northern Ireland did have some policies, and those weren't better news: "We found that the HET, as a matter of policy, treats deaths where there was state involvement differently from those cases where there is no state involvement."

Its credibility shattered, the HET suddenly discovered last summer that there wasn't enough money in the PSNI's budget anymore to pay for its existence. The team was closed, many of the contractors were let go, and subsequent negotiations in Northern Ireland's government led to a very general agreement that would, among other things, eventually create a new "Historical Inquiries Unit." No one appears to be in a hurry to open that new investigative body, and news reports this week suggest that the PSNI is hoping to get it started in, oh, I don't know, how about a couple years from now

In the interim, a smaller Legacy Investigations Branch will do the work of the shuttered HET and the proposed HIU. This totally isn't a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic: The HET and the LIB and the HIU are the same, but totally different. Clear?

So while no one actually knows what the PSNI should really do about killings committed during the Troubles, and the service drifts between different bowls of alphabet soup with no clear plan or intent, someone at the PSNI has decided to throw a new international subpoena (or subpoenas; we don't know) at the past.

By the way, one of the other elements of that same agreement in Northern Ireland that's supposed to lead to a new unit for the investigation of historical crimes: A proposal to create an oral history archive so people can speak honestly about the past. They don't seem to have consciously intended to engage in open farce, but the fact that no one burst into nervous giggling as they offered this alleged proposal suggests the seriousness of the agreement. I mean, what the hell – an oral history archive on the Troubles? What could possibly go wrong? Maybe they could interview Richard O'Rawe.   

In any event, this is what the PSNI's press office has been saying in response to news media inquiries regarding new Belfast Project subpoenas: "Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast Project. This is in line with the PSNI's statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder."

So while the LIB winds down the HET and spins up the HIU, the SCB is also apparently doing its own separate investigations into Troubles-era violent crimes. You can feel the thought and planning at work.

An alternative approach would be to slow down and reach a secure and detailed policy agreement about the investigation of the past, but whatever. Judging by the effects of the 2011 subpoenas, there's not much of an outcome to worry about anyway. Although we may end up with some new police acronyms after a few more failed branches of an obviously confused agency.