Is the FBI more dangerous to civil liberties when it REFUSES to record?

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, lawyer Harvey Silverglate claims that the FBI follows a policy of not recording interviews with suspects and witnesses in order to be able to put words in their mouth. He points specifically to the case of Robel Phillipos, who was recently arrested and charged with making materially false statements during the course of the investigation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston bombing.

Mr. Silverglate has a point. Without electronic recording, the FBI agent can sit in the interview room, taking whatever notes he pleases, and then later attribute those statements to the interviewee. The interviewee, in disputing the statements, risks prosecution for the same crime now being alleged against Robel Phillipos. Mr. Silverglate apparently thinks that creating this opportunity is the reason for the FBI’s policy.

But there are a couple of problems with this theory. First, to do this would be a crime–the same crime that Robel Phillipos is charge with in fact, along with a couple of others. Second, the FBI do not want to soil their own evidence. Even apart from the implications for admissibility or weight, if it becomes known that an agent is falsifying witness statements, false witness statements only harm the investigation by adding incorrect information into an already complex picture.

Last, but not least, Mr Silverglate doesn’t address the one feature that may help to level the playing field between the FBI and the witness: the jury. A witness statement is not at all like a piece of physical evidence. The jury does not simply note that it exists (theoretically, the jury doesn’t even stop here for physical evidence). Instead, when confronted with the claimed falsification of the statement, the jury will decide which of the two parties they believe is telling the truth. Ignoring this aspect severely undercuts Mr. Silverglate’s argument.

However, in the end, his point still stands. Why, with the ubiquity of hand-held recording devices (like the on in your pocket or purse that rings from time to time), doesn’t the FBI record all interviews as a matter of course. If for some reason a recorder cannot be found, they can always revert back to their paper-only method, and explain to the jury why they had to do so. But it would effectively remove the possibility of interviewees claiming that they were misquoted or that their statements were falsified. And in this respect Mr. Silverglate is correct. This should be a non-issue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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About paulwtaylor

Paul is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy & Research and an alumnus of Seton Hall Law School and the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Having obtained a joint-degree in law and international relations, he has studied international security, causes of war, national security law, and international law. Additionally, Paul is a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, with deployments to both Afghanistan and to Iraq, and has worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Global Action to Prevent War. He has also participated in habeas litigation for Guantanamo Bay detainees and investigated various government policies and practices. In addition to his duties as a member of the editorial staff of TransparentPolicy.org, Paul now works at Cydecor, Inc., a defense contractor focused on naval irregular and expeditionary warfare. Paul's research and writing focuses on targeted killing, direct action, drones, and the automation of warfare.

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