By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama White House tramples on academic inquiry

Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams

This commentary was previously published at WGBH News.

Once again, the Obama White House has demonstrated its contempt for journalism and other forms of independent inquiry.

As we should all know by now, journalists do not have a First Amendment right to protect their anonymous sources. Following the same principle, academic researchers have no constitutional protection if they wish to keep secret the identities of people who provide them with evidence about serious crimes.

Thus it should be no surprise that U.S. District Judge William Young last year ordered Boston College to turn over parts of the Belfast Tapes, an oral-history project involving members of the Irish Republican Army. Those tapes led to the arrest Wednesday of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has been accused of involvement in the notorious 1972 murder of an innocent woman named Jean McConville. (Adams denies the charges.)

The struggle for Irish independence was a decades-long guerrilla war. All sides, including the British military, conducted themselves shamefully. When seeking a resolution to such horrors, the parties generally agree that reconciliation requires them to overlook acts that would never be tolerated in normal times. Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity in South Africa is the best-known example, but there are many others.

But the British government leaned on the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed the tapes. There was little either BC or the courts could have done about it once Obama and Holder made up their minds to go along with British demands rather than stand up for free academic inquiry. As former lieutenant governor (and former BC trustee) Tom O’Neill puts it:

In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?

As the journalist Ed Moloney, a leader of the Belfast Tapes project, tells The Boston Globe, “The damage is done. The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”

Finally, I should note that the legal case involving the Belfast Tapes has been enormously complex and marked by enmity between Moloney and Boston College officials. If you would like to learn more, Beth McMurtrie wrote a long piece earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    “The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”

    I can’t agree with Moloney’s extreme view, if for no other reason, we live in an era of technology that allows for a degrees of immediacy and comprehensiveness that simply were not previously available. So much information can be, and is, captured, often by seemingly innocuous sources. (Consider how fast the authorities zeroed in on the Marathon bombers.) Yes, I could see instances involving very small numbers of people or remote areas or situations where “history” might be lost. But seriously, what today isn’t recorded by someone, somewhere, somehow?

  2. Bob Gardner

    Under your logic, Dan, we should forget about prosecuting the Marathon bombers until the Russians who committed war crimes in Chechnya are also brought to justice. The accused are from Chechnya after all, and a lot worse things happened there than in Northern Ireland.

  3. Bill Duncliffe

    I wonder if the ten children of their widowed mother agree that her death should be ignored in the pursuit of some greater good. I thunk it comes down to one’s definition of a “greater good.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      Here’s some vital context from Kevin Cullen: “I have no problem with Adams being subjected to this legal process, as long as the British government sees to it that the British soldiers who gunned down 13 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday the same year Jean McConville was abducted are subjected to the same process.” If all sides insist on perfect justice, then war never ends. That’s what Nelson Mandela understood.

      • I wondered about that while reading. Is there any evidence they were NOT punished?

      • Bob Gardner

        When this story first broke a couple years ago, Cullen covered it as news,even though his views on the subject were quite well known. Beat The Press had recently done a big story excoriatng the Globe for letting an intern with pro-Palestinian views cover a graduation day protest at Brandeis.
        Not only did BTP fail to point out Cullen’s conflct, but Emily Rooney actually invited Cullen on to her show for an interview on the BC papers. The Globe, to its credit, later on quietly removed Cullen from the news side of the story.
        I wouldn’t claim that BTP has different standards for covering Israel vs -Palestine than it does for Britain vs Ireland. And I wouldn’t claim that BTP holds interns to a higher standard than it does for its buddies. But unless someone can come up with a better explanation, I suspect that one of these two explanations applies.

  4. Bill Duncliffe

    I actually read the whole CHE article you cited. The project seems to have been so poorly conceived and executed that a downstream dustup was almost inevitable. These were tricky waters for BC to tread into with very little legal guidance upfront or oversight during.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Yes. Boston College has taken a lot of heat for not fighting harder. The CHE article convinced me the criticism is overblown.

  5. Bill Duncliffe

    I think BC’s “not fighting harder” was the least of the problems associated with this mess. They allowed themselves to end up in a position where a fight was entirely predictable due to no consideration of the implications of the structure and lack of ongoing oversight from disconnected parties representing the institution’s interests.

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