Failures

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
fbi, interviews, recording



Your Word Against Ours: How The FBI's 'No Electronic Recording' Policy Rigs The Game... And Destroys Its Credibility

from the everybody-knows-the-dice-are-loaded dept

Considering the FBI's unseemly interest in recording phone calls and inserting itself into all sorts of electronic conversations (all without asking permission first), it's incredibly strange that it refuses to use one of the most basic electronic devices available: a voice recorder. In fact, as Harvey Silverglate's op-ed for the Boston Globe points out, it's forbidden to use any sort of recording device when interviewing suspects.

FBI agents always interview in pairs. One agent asks the questions, while the other writes up what is called a “form 302 report” based on his notes. The 302 report, which the interviewee does not normally see, becomes the official record of the exchange; any interviewee who contests its accuracy risks prosecution for lying to a federal official, a felony. And here is the key problem that throws the accuracy of all such statements and reports into doubt: FBI agents almost never electronically record their interrogations; to do so would be against written policy.
Without a recording to compare the transcript to, we are expected to trust the FBI's version of the interrogation. If we can't trust it, we are left to draw one of the following conclusions.

1. The transcript is completely false.
2. The transcript is heavily editorialized.
3. The transcript interprets certain statements, but is otherwise accurate.
4. The transcript is completely accurate.

Of all of these choices, number 4 seem least likely. In fact, one wonders why the FBI bothers interviewing anyone when it could simply put two agents in a room and allow them to bang out a confession on behalf of the accused.

If a suspect claims the transcription is erroneous, it's his word against theirs. His words, of course, disappeared into the ether as soon as they were spoken. The FBI's version lives on, printed on paper.

We don't need to ask "why" this is a problem. There are rhetorical questions and then there are stupid questions, the sort helpful teachers and guidance counselors continue to pretend don't exist. A better question is, "Why hasn't this been changed?" Silverglate notes this policy is an updated version of a 1990's policy, crafted in 2006, long long long long after recording devices were ubiquitous. The excuse that this policy was "logistically necessary" because of technological limitations was ridiculous in 1990, much less 16 years later.

This is a problem. More specifically, this is Robel Phillipos' problem.
Phillipos is a 19-year-old Cambridge resident, former UMass Dartmouth student, and friend of alleged Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He faces charges of making materially false statements during a series of interviews with FBI agents. If convicted, he could get up to eight years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
How do we know he did this? Because the FBI says he did. It has the "paperwork" to "prove" it. As was pointed out above, simply questioning the transcript opens the questioner up for charges of "making false statements." Phillipos could be completely innocent but that means nothing when the accusers are writing the narrative. Scott Greenfield shows just how easily an innocent answer could turn into damning "evidence" in the hands of an FBI interrogation team.
Q: We found files on your computer showing that you went to a website with instructions on how to make a bomb, so we know you did it. When did you first go to the bomb website?

A: I surf the web constantly and go through, like, a million pages. I have no idea what pages I searched or when. How could I possibly know?

Notated in 302: D cannot recall when he first went to bomb website. Went "constantly."
Slick, isn't it? And when someone points out a misquote, the accusation is turned on them just as easily. "Are you lying now or were you lying earlier?"

This is nasty business but it gets even nastier. Beyond the hilarious claim that tech simply hasn't advanced enough since 1990 to allow reliable voice recording, there's a much darker rationale guiding this ridiculous (and dangerous) policy.
The more honest — and more terrifying — justification for non-recording given in the memo reads as follows: “. . . perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants. Initial resistance may be interpreted as involuntariness and misleading a defendant as to the quality of the evidence against him may appear to be unfair deceit.” Translated from bureaucratese: When viewed in the light of day, recorded witness statements could appear to a reasonable jury of laypersons to have been coercively or misleadingly obtained.
Sometimes the "reasonable jury" would be right -- the statement has been "coercively or misleadingly obtained." Other times, it may not be as clear-cut. But in a day and age where recording interviews and interrogations is the expectation, the FBI continues to play by its own (convenient) rules. And if the person being interrogated doesn't like it, he can expect additional charges to brought. This puts the alleged criminal in the unenviable position of having "anything he says" twisted, rewritten and heavily paraphrased before being used against him.

Silverglate cautions to withhold judgement on Phillipos until all the facts are in. But as long as the FBI continues to use this "recording" technique, don't grant its statements any credibility. They have none.


Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 21 May 2013 @ 12:31am

    Oh, come on, FBI!

    The UK police forces have been tape recording interviews since the 1980s. This in countries that, by reputation, are less technologically advanced than the US.

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