Any Justification Will Do

23:04 Mon 26 Mar 2007. Updated: 07:21 27 Mar 2007
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It should be apparent that a combination of power and secrecy is an invitation to abuse. I’m not sure why that would ever be controversial. It’s not a guarantee of abuse, but it certainly makes it more likely.

And yet significant numbers of people seem sympathetic to arguments otherwise—arguments that such-and-such an authority should be allowed to operate in secret, and should simply be trusted. Such a susceptibility must exist, I think, in order for authorities to consistently trot out the obviously inane reasons that they concoct to defend their secret practices—these excuses must take hold, or at least confuse, some people, or they’d try something else. I wonder if the main target they aim to confuse is the press, who will fall over themselves to give equal (or more than equal) time to these claims.

The recent refusal by President Bush to have Rove and other aides testify under oath (and with recording/transcription) concerning the US-attorney-firings scandal is an obvious example of this. They can claim all they want that it’s a matter of “the principle of executive privilege”, but it should be clear that the only reason that Rove doesn’t want to testify under oath is because he wants to keep the option of lying open (and penalty-free)—or because he wants to simply evade certain lines of questioning entirely. Either of these options should be clearly perceived as unacceptable behavior from someone as powerful in public affairs as Rove.

Another example: Glenn Greenwald discusses recent documents (PDF 1, PDF 2, PDF 3) released during the same US-attorney-firing scandal that reveal that none of the federal law enforcement agencies want their interrogation sessions recorded. Paul Charlton, who was Arizona’s US Attorney, came up with a set of reasons why mandatory recording would be a good thing. Those reasons are quite compelling, but all of the other agencies, led by the ATF and the FBI, rejected the recommendation. Their basis for so doing? Because juries might be unduly and unfairly influenced by unsettling (but perfectly legal!) interrogation techniques. In other words, to make sure there are no misunderstandings, the raw truth of the matter must be hidden from view.

This particular example is quite sick. If unacceptable techniques were used, or were made up by an evil defense attorney, recordings would only help the federal agencies, because they cannot lie to juries/courts about interrogation conduct. They are under oath in court. So:

* If no abusive interrogation occurs, and the defense doesn’t claim it did, then recorded interrogations can only help the feds by making it easier for them to review material, find holes in the story, present the case in court, etc.
* If no abusive interrogation occurs, but the evil defense attorney claims one did, recordings could only help the feds.
* If an abusive interrogation occurs, the evil defense attorney will bring it up, and at that point it will come out because the feds are under oath and have to tell the truth about what occurred. Recordings are irrelevant.

Right? Oh, wait—they’re not irrelevant if they’re going to lie. Excuse me while I get up on my hobby horse…

Juries, while they certainly make mistakes, are fundamental to the legal system. They decide the fates of the accused, and in order to do so fairly must have access to all as much information as possible. Sometimes the rules governing information availability are complex, but those rules are there to protect the innocent against prosecutorial (and law enforcement) misconduct—the price we pay for that protection of the innocent is that occasionally these rules will allow the apparently guilty to slip away. And the impact of rules against prosecutorial misconduct do not in any way justify further misconduct to “get around” or “balance” that impact.

So law enforcement lying to, or even misleading, juries about interrogation would be a significant threat to fair trials, and a huge deal (no matter how widespread it may be in practice). The situation covered by Greenwald is even worse, because it’s obvious that the various agencies know damn well that this lying goes on, and that they want to keep it going, and that they’re just throwing up whatever reasonable-sounding excuses they can to shoot down the entirely reasonable and rational idea that interrogations should be recorded. The only conclusion I can draw is that this misconduct is not only endemic, it’s clearly supported by the upper management of these agencies. This is simultaneously utterly unsurprising to me and a total national disgrace.

But they expect to cover it up (and may succeed in so doing) by claiming that access to recordings might somehow lead to more “confusion” or “misleading impressions” than no recordings at all.

It was recently revealed that the NYPD spied on protesters planning to attend the Republican National Convention in 2004 even more widely than was previously thought (even going as far as Europe and Canada…). This is quite clearly something that people should be concerned about, and clearly points directly at suppression of political dissent. Even if the NYPD were to be completely exonerated and proven to have been acting entirely within proper bounds (which I greatly doubt), the discussion and discovery of whether or not this is the case is rather important and needs all the information. But they NYPD disagree, and they only have our own best interests at heart: they fear that if their exploits are made public, they will be “sensationalized” by the media. Access to the documents might “hurt the city’ ability to defend itself” against lawsuits concerning the protest (well, yeah, if they reveal illegal activity, they would do that…). And furthermore, the documents might be “misinterpreted” because they weren’t originally written for public consumption. Amazing. Access to the documents themselves might be misleading, so instead we should just accept what the NYPD tell us about them, because that’s actually a more accurate version of the truth.

And finally, in the same vein but even more ridiculous, insane, and disgusting: U.S. Military Defends Deleting AP Images from Afghanistan. In which it is revealed that not only did US troops force journalists to delete photos and video of the aftermath of a bombing and firefight, but the US Army vigorously defends such actions—as a way of protecting the truth. “… publication could have compromised a military investigation and led to false public conclusions”, apparently. Colonel Victor Petrenko: “Investigative integrity is one circumstance when civil and military authorities will reluctantly exercise the right to control what a journalist is permitted to document.” Right, so to protect integrity, they had to destroy evidence. Oh, and photographs or video taken by “untrained people” might “capture visual details that are not as they originally were.” What the fuck does that even mean? Lest the point be lost on anyone, by the way, they did not merely confiscate the footage/photos, which would be bad enough—they destroyed that evidence. In light of that absolutely damning detail, how could anyone believe the facetious lies about “investigative integrity”, or think that this was anything other than a blatant coverup of most-likely atrocious conduct? Oh, but Petrenko ends the statement with banal platitudes about US commitment to a free and independent press, so it must be fine.

I might have been wrong at the start in claiming that some significant number of people believe that kind of crap. But it still serves a propaganda purpose, because even getting such words reported in the mainstream press gives weight to them, and makes people at least think that some people might give credence to such lies—deadening the response at least a little if not a lot, and tempering the outrage and sense of collective anger and disbelief that this ilk of mendacious and puerile bullshit should engender.

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