Why The FBI's New Interview Recording Policy Probably Won't Change Anything
from the the-loophole-is-a-superhighway dept
As was noted here earlier, the FBI took a bold step in towards joining the 21st century by finally implementing audio and video recording hardware introduced in the 20th century. Up until this point, the FBI, along with the DEA and ICE, did not record in-custody interrogations using anything more up-to-date than pen-and-paper. This rendered recollections of interrogations completely suspect, prone to pen-wielder bias and the insertion and removal of context as needed, presumably in order to help secure more convictions for the FBI's
entrapment counterterrorism task force.
And, as was also noted, the DOJ's new instructions provided plenty of escape hatches for agents who wished their interrogations to remain as analog as possible. Unrecorded interrogations can still be performed in the event that desirable recording equipment (i.e., a cellphone) isn't available or if the equipment available isn't functioning (batteries missing/unplugged/
inadvertently smashed to pieces…).
But there are other loopholes awaiting exploitation. Stephen Shulhofer at Just Security highlights out the gaping, convenient memory hole contained in the DOJ's memo.
First, there's the "public safety" exception, which can be triggered when exigent circumstances make unrecorded and (un-Mirandized) interrogations a necessity. These would be questionings normally done in the first few moments of an arrest. But with everyone carrying around a recording device, that exception no longer makes much sense. You no longer have to take a suspect "downtown" in order to record a questioning. The inclusion of this loophole is likely borrowed from pre-existing language, but all it does is create reasons not to record.
[S]ince recording is no longer impracticable, why wouldn't a responsible law enforcement agency want to preserve an unambiguous record? Unlike a public safety exception to Miranda, a public safety exception to recording seems to serve no purpose other than that of affording a loophole that can be exploited for illicit purposes.The other loophole is much, much larger. It's predicated on the same rationale that has allowed the Constitution to be selectively scrapped over the past dozen years.
The same point applies with even greater force to the exceptions for “national security” and “intelligence, sources, or methods.” If recording is feasible (and that is the only condition in which the recording policy applies), national security and counterterrorism officials can only gain by having an unambiguous record of precisely what a suspect was asked and precisely how he or she answered. Indeed, an official who deliberately chose not to make and preserve a clear record of a national security interrogation would display less dedication than incompetence.As Schulhofer points out, this exception plays right into the mindset of the FBI, which has refashioned itself into the nation's largest counterterrorism force (putting law enforcement on the back burner). This also plays right into every law enforcement and intelligence agency's fetishization of "intelligence, sources or methods." This is what's conjured up to justify refusals of FOIA requests and to keep new surveillance methods out of the public eye for as long as possible. It's what's used to deny access to returned warrants on closed cases. But for the FBI, it's also a reason to never record anything, just in case. The FBI's intertwined relationship with the NSA -- combined with the last year of leaked documents -- will make any agent extremely wary about leaving behind undisputed records of intelligence-related interviews. But all this will do is make these agencies even more insular and untrustworthy than they already are.
No national security establishment can possibly operate effectively on the basis of unwritten knowledge and word of mouth. If our government has reacted to the Snowden affair by developing an aversion to writing anything down, we are in deep trouble."Deep trouble" is where we're headed, if we're not there already. The DOJ has given the FBI, DEA and ICE huge exceptions to the recording policy -- which, it must be noted, aren't actually commands but a "presumptions" -- ones that are particularly prone to exploitation. Over the past decade, we've seen the government exploit the fear of "the next 9/11" to expand power and contract civil liberties. Government agents may now have to act under the "presumption" that custodial interviews will be recorded, but the DOJ has given them a handy list of excuses to use when these recordings fail to happen.