[On this date in 2009, I posted on this blog an item headed That letter from the FBI to the Justice Secretary: is it real? The first of its two sentences read simply “This is the heading over a devastating exposure by Jonathan Mitchell QC on his blog of the misconceptions and errors of fact and law in the letter from the Director of the FBI to Kenny MacAskill.” Mr Mitchell’s article reads as follows:]
My last post covered two issues; the hypocrisy of the attack on the decision to release Megrahi, and the law relative to compassionate release of prisoners in Scotland. But in linking these I noted in passing that much of the attack on MacAskill was simply ignorant, and wrote “FBI Director Robert Mueller, in his much-quoted open letter to MacAskill, obviously intended primarily for US domestic consumption, thought the Justice Secretary was a ‘prosecutor‘.“. That touched a nerve with one anonymous commenter, who wrote me a poison-pen message in the middle of which he stated:
The first paragraph of the FBI director’s letter he’s clearly putting it forth that he generally stays out of another jurisdiction’s case–in his experience as a prosecutor the cases of other prosecutors–though the phraseology might be a good target for a pendant punching above his weight class. Indeed, in the US and presumably Scotland, the prosecutor’s ultimate boss is the Attorney General of the US (or Justice Minister there). When the director talks about the effect of the release it is on terrorists in general and their conviction in a ‘…the conviction of trial by jury’. He obviously means it in a general sense or perhaps you’d have his sentence read something like ‘…the conviction of trial by jury–unless of course the crime is one that the statute allows the defendant to select a panel of judges or a judge instead–after the defendant is given all due process…’.
Now, I wouldn’t normally bother about poison-pen writers, but this made me go back to the letter to see if I had misread it. I didn’t. It contains glaring errors about the Lockerbie process. But what on reflection is interesting is that Robert Mueller is an extremely experienced lawyer who worked for many years on the Lockerbie prosecution, (although he was not, as the letter claims, ‘in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991‘; that was the Lord Advocate). It seems inconceivable that he would not have known the truth; and I don’t believe he actually can have been as ignorant as I suggested. I apologise for that. I have to wonder if he actually wrote this letter, with its collection of howlers. Let’s look at what it says, and at the true facts.
The first weird statement is the one about staying out of another jurisdiction’s cases, to use the commenter’s re-hash. This is what Mueller wrote:
Over the years I have been a prosecutor, and recently as the Director of the FBI, I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors, since only the prosecutor handling the case has all the facts and the law before him in reaching the appropriate decision.
Your decision to release Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice in this case.
Now, the ‘practice‘ he says he’s abandoning is the practice that he does not ‘comment on the actions of other prosecutors‘. But the Justice Secretary is not a prosecutor; he has nothing to do with the prosecution process. He is not the ‘prosecutor’s ultimate boss‘; that’s the Lord Advocate, whose constitutional independence of the Justice Secretary is fundamental to the system. Section 48 (5) of the Scotland Act states “Any decision of the Lord Advocate in his capacity as head of the systems of criminal prosecution and investigation of deaths in Scotland shall continue to be taken by him independently of any other person.” 1. If the Justice Secretary tried to tell prosecutors what to do, or how to do it, he would be told to sling his hook; and vice versa. Robert Mueller knows this. He is not stupid. He worked with several Lord Advocates over many years. If Robert Mueller wrote the quotation above, he was telling a deliberate untruth. That seems strange. Why should he bother, just for a minor rhetorical flourish? It seems more likely that the author was some minion who shared the lazy assumption of my commenter that the Justice Secretary just had to be a prosecutor, because that’s the American system.
Now, later in the letter the same howler is repeated in different language:
You apparently made this decision without regard to the views of your partners in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the Lockerbie tragedy.
The Justice Secretary is not a ‘partner in investigation and prosecution‘, any more than he is a ‘partner’ of the accused or the defence. He is independent of both, as a judge is. Here again we see language that suggests a basic ignorance of the separation of powers.
There’s another error which I didn’t mention, the reference to ‘conviction by jury‘, which Anonymous nevertheless identifies and defends:
Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed …
It seems obvious from this language that its author thought Megrahi was convicted ‘by jury‘. But Mueller knows as well as Megrahi himself that he was not. He sat through much if not all of the trial. Here, again, it seems extraordinary that for a pointless two words Mueller would write something which he knew perfectly well was wrong. Juries are fundamental to the American system (except, of course, for alleged terrorists), but surely Mueller knows they aren’t the norm in most countries affected by terrorism.
There are other errors, most notably the central fatuous and hysterical claim that the release will give comfort to terrorists: what will actually give them comfort is the Faustian pact of successive American and British governments to forgive the entire chain of command in the Libyan intelligence service and government so as to encourage business opportunities2. If you cheerfully sup with the devil, you… the reader can complete this sentence.
Yet neither Mueller nor the FBI have ever gone on record as critical of the decision of successive US administrations to grant amnesty and forgiveness to those who, they say, gave Megrahi his orders; to give them hospitality, trade with them, sell them military equipment.
So I have to ask: who actually wrote this letter? If it was Robert Mueller, he must have been on the juice, which may perhaps have been what Lord Fraser had in mind when he kindly suggested Mueller visit Scotland to ‘discuss some good whisky‘. If it was some underling, he didn’t do his homework.
Whoever it was, it was someone with the Stalinist thinking about the infallibility of police and prosecutors which coloured the UK governments strenuous efforts to keep the evidence in the recent appeal effectively secret, but in a less disguised form. Look at this:
… only the prosecutor handling the case has all the facts and the law before him in reaching the appropriate decision.
That’s the thinking that led to the founding of the Cheka in 1918. As Hector MacQueen pointed out, it’s the old chestnut that we don’t need courts or judges to “reach the appropriate decision“; still less any defence. The prosecution, after all, is infallible. No wonder then, perhaps, that the writer of this letter, whoever he or she may have been, was so appalled at anyone not following its instructions. Thus the complaint “You never once sought our opinion” on the release. As the Justice Secretary rightly pointed out in Parliament, however, in Scotland “we have separation of powers“. Someone in the FBI, however, does not believe in this.
There’s a phrase for this, and the phrase is ‘police state’.
- See this description in a recent paper by the Judiciary on reform of the Lord Advocate’s status for a fuller analysis.
- Musa Kusa, who the British government expelled in 1980 after he announced “The revolutionary committees have decided last night to kill two more people in the United Kingdom. I approve of this“, and who the CIA found had direct responsibility for the PanAm 103 bomb (and indeed many other murders), was in 2003 entertained by both governments in the Travellers Club in Pall Mall, London. The last time I was in the Travellers Club, I noticed the fine portrait of Lord Castlereagh half-way up the staircase. He was the Foreign Secretary of whom Shelley wrote in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ ‘I met Murder on the way/He had a mask like Castlereagh/Very smooth he looked, yet grim/Seven bloodhounds followed him/All were fat, and well they might/Be in admirable plight/For one by one and two by two/He tossed them human hearts to chew/Which from his wide cloak he drew…‘ . Was the setting deliberate? Castlereagh would have been an appropriate host.