And Starring Jack Dunn as Tweedle Dee

And Starring Jack Dunn as Tweedle Dee
Chris Bray
9 January 2012

In a smart, alert post at Letters Blogatory, Ted Folkman notices Boston College wandering lost as officials there try to explain what promises were made to Belfast Project interviewees. This is must reading for anyone interested in the BC subpoenas.

Now about the implications. Folkman writes, “The contract with Moloney shows that the College and Maloney were on notice that US law could limit their ability to promise confidentiality; but that awareness did not make it into the agreement that was shown to the interviewees.”

So interviewees were assured, and did believe, that BC would protect their interviews from disclosure, full stop. (Though Ed Moloney will surely contest the claim that he was on notice about the limits on confidentiality.)

Then, quoting Folkman again: “For reasons I have given elsewhere, I do not believe that the College’s promise of confidentiality has any effect on the government’s subpoena.”

It’s very likely that he’s right about that last part. But. In a project that BC commissioned, oversaw, and agreed to protect, people took an extraordinary risk, exposing politically explosive and personally dangerous information. They did so because BC promised to protect them, a fact the university is now trying to fudge. But the failure doesn’t come down on the heads of the institution that failed, commissioning a dangerous project without adequate protections; rather, the failure comes raining down around the researchers and interviewees. Everyone is damaged but the institution that commissioned the project and agreed to archive its results.

If BC made promises it can’t legally keep, and the people to whom it made those promises will be badly harmed by that failure, then BC had an obligation to keep those promises anyway, and to take the consequences. Journalists go to jail to protect sources, but academics shrug and say that hey, the law says we have to abandon our promise to you, what can we do?

If you make a promise, are you willing to pay a price to keep it? What’s a promise worth?