Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean right now, a hookah-smoking caterpillar is finishing his drink and thinking about getting some sleep. He has to: he’s exhausted from shuttling back and forth between government offices in Boston and Belfast, where detectives and prosecutors have fallen all the way through the looking glass.
Judging by how far they have gone, we have to wonder if they will ever make it back.
Start in Boston, where federal prosecutors are managing a request from the British government to subpoena academic research on paramilitary organizations that were active in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
In a long series of memoranda to the federal courts, Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil and other government lawyers have solemnly informed several judges that they are helping the British government to catch a dangerous cabal of kidnappers and murderers in the Provisional IRA. In his latest filing, a January 9 response to a legal appeal, McNeil sounded a clear note of urgency, warning, “there is a pressing need to resolve this matter promptly.”
And what urgent matter is it that demands prompt resolution? The investigation into the murder of Jean McConville. In 1972. Presumably, John McNeil giggled like a schoolgirl while he typed this sentence.
Inventing urgency over a decades-old murder that the police in Northern Ireland thoroughly ignored for most of those forty years, the Department of Justice manages to make a claim so ridiculous it could pass for farce.
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In a January response to a lawsuit from researchers Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, Assistant U.S. Attorneys George Henderson and Barbara Healy Smith argue that neither plaintiff has standing to sue.
Among other things, the government’s lawyers insist that Moloney and McIntyre face no clear risk of harm from the release, to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, of the confidential interviews they gathered with former members of the IRA.
“Messrs Moloney and McIntyre assert that the disclosure of the tape recordings and related materials to law enforcement officials would jeopardize their personal safety,” they write.
“This claim, however, is simply too speculative to meet the ‘concrete and particularized injury’ test.”
Assisting in an investigation into the murder of an informer, the Department of Justice can’t so much as imagine the possibility that the Provos would harm a pair of researchers whose breached archive of confidential interviews will give the police inside information about the
activities of the very group that murdered the informer in the first place. It’s like a scene from Ionesco: Oh your honor, we must have this information at once, because we have to catch this horrible band of murderers and terrorists!
But isn’t it possible that they will harm the people who gathered the information you want?
Oh, certainly not, your honor! They would never hurt a fly.
From sentence to sentence in the government’s legal briefs, the IRA is either Osama bin Laden’s less-gentle cousins or a group of old ladies who meet for bridge at the country club every third Wednesday. They murdered an informer, but don’t worry about turning over their secrets to the police.
I’m not a doctor, but I suspect that some government lawyers in Boston are missing a physical structure in the brain that allows for the
recognition of simple connections.
Now, on to Belfast, where police detectives are at long last alleged to be solving the murder of Jean McConville. To do that, they first asked for two sets of archived oral history interviews that apparently discuss McConville’s death: one set with Brendan Hughes, one set with Dolours Price. Since Hughes is dead, Boston College immediately surrendered his interview materials upon receipt of a first round of subpoenas in early May of 2011.
Add five dollars and a week for a manila envelope to travel across the ocean, and the PSNI has had the Hughes interviews for seven months and change.
You can see how they jumped right into action once they had that information, bringing in McConville’s killers for trial and rushing over to Gerry Adams’ house to start the interrogation. If you can’t spot the sarcasm in this paragraph, ask a friend who pays close attention to the news from Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the PSNI wants the Dolours Price interviews because of a newspaper story that says she admits to participating in the McConville kidnapping and names Adams as her commander in the IRA. The police have to have the tapes at Boston College, you see, so they can find out that Price admits to participating in the McConville kidnapping and names Adams as her commander in the IRA. They need the tapes to tell them what the
newspaper told them, which they already know, so they need to find out. So they can act on the new information that they already have but want to get, just like they quickly went to work questioning suspects when they got their hands on the Hughes interviews, which they didn’t.
If you’re still reading, maybe stop for a moment and have a drink. I just did, and it helped.
Among the many fascinating realities of the suddenly urgent in Boston (but still strangely neglected in Belfast) investigation into McConville’s murder, this one interests me the most, though in a way I can’t quite explain: since the interviews with Brendan Hughes ceased to
be confidential with his death in 2008, and since Moloney had already used the Hughes interviews for a book in 2010, the British government asked the U.S. government to subpoena a set of materials that were known to be publicly available.
For the cost of an economy class ticket and two nights at the Holiday Inn, the PSNI could have sent a detective to Boston to walk onto the campus of Boston College, stroll over to the Burns Library, fill out a call slip, and have the Hughes interview tapes and transcripts handed
to him over a counter.
If they didn’t want to go through all that trouble, they could just as easily have made an informal request to the FBI to send someone over for a quick look.
Why do you use an international legal assistance treaty to get a federal subpoena across an ocean for materials that you can get by walking into a library and asking for them? It’s anybody’s guess, but mine is that the PSNI is putting on a show.
Or maybe they’re just fools.
Chris Bray is a PhD candidate in the History Department at UCLA, and also a former United States Army soldier and journalist. His particular study of the Boston College case stems from his interest in the protection of research and the right of free inquiry.