Secret Evidence


Camille Taiara has a very interesting article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on the use of secret evidence against suspected terrorists—a practice that didn't begin with 9/11, though it's become much more common since then. The center of the story is a Sikh man named Harpel Singh Cheema, imprisoned since 1997 for reasons the reporter does her best to discern. But he's not the only one:

In one such case, a stateless Palestinian by the name of Hany Kiareldeen spent 19 months in jail—much of it in solitary confinement—based on secret evidence alleging he was a member of a terrorist organization. Once finally revealed, it turned out the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "evidence" consisted of uncorroborated allegations that terrorists convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had regularly communicated with Kiareldeen by telephone at his home prior to carrying out their goal. Yet the phone calls had been made months before Kiareldeen had moved into the residence. Kiareldeen didn't even know the group he was accused of corroborating with.

In another case, the INS held seven Iraqis it said entered the country without valid visas—although they had participated in a failed Central Intelligence Agency plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein and were evacuated from Iraq by U.S. government forces in October 1996 and, indeed, had suffered persecution and torture under Hussein's regime before that.

The article reads like a dark and bitter comedy. One of those Iraqis spent a year in prison, for example, after an incompetent translator "confused KLM, the acronym for a Dutch airline the man had traveled on, with a terrorist group."


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  1. And the parallels with the techniques of Inquisitors continues…

    I just fail to see how people can actually think the idea that evidence should undergo some kind of _test_ of authenticity, validity, and reliability is a luxury, rather than a necessity.

  2. Its simply amazing how secret evidence can cirumvent the right to due process. Is it too much for a jury of peers to be allowed access to said secret evidence following background checks and agreements to keeping knowledge of evidence classified?

  3. Before 9/11, the 7 Iraqis were featured on 60 Minutes once or twice.

  4. I’d like to take a very brief moment to comment on the Inquisitions (presumably those in Spain). Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Europe were much much more broad geographically than those under the influence of the papal inquisitions, with the highest concentration in Switzerland and Germany.
    Further, in many cases, the papal Inquisitions themselves were a major step towards restoring the order and minimizing the executions of random localized witch-hunts. In fact, with Alonzo de Salazar and others, it was said that if an accused could get their case taken by the Inquisition they had a pretty good chance of survival.

    Anyway, please carry on.

  5. Citizen: Really? Wow, that’s actually pretty facinating. I hadn’t heard that before.

    Perhaps rather than Inquisitors I should go with…uh…well, no real specific name for the various interrogaters during the middle ages and Burning Times to out witches and heretics, whos methods were about as likely to convict the innocent as the guilty (assuming anyone was ever actually guilty of being a witch).

    How…inconvenient. Reminds me of the bit in 1984, to the effect of “Have you ever considered how much of human history has been decided by what words rhyme with what other words?”

  6. Yeah, because political governments were so weak away from the court, the Inquisition as an institution acted as a centralized court. And as we all know, the more centralized a govt/court system, the less activity actually gets accomplished. Seriously.
    That doesn’t diminish the awful things that DID happen during the witch-hunts. And for the record, I got this info from a history class on the witch-hunts I took a while ago at the State U. and one of the text books: The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian Levack

  7. The article reads like a dark and bitter comedy.

    Most of the San Francisco Bay Guardian reads that way. 🙂

  8. The Inquisitorial courts’ procedure was based on Roman civil law, completely different from common law due process. Perhaps most important among the differences, the burden of proof was not on the prosecution and there was no reasonable doubt standard.

    Civil law procedure was used, likewise, in British prerogative law courts like Star Chamber, Exchequer and Admiralty. Among American colonists, the use of civil law procedures by the Admiralty courts that enforced mercantile law was a major cause leading to revolution.

    Interestingly, the administrative law used by regulatory agencies in this country is a direct descendant of that same civil law procedure. A Supreme Court majority opinion in the 1850s (I forget which case) stated that the various common law procedural guarantees of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments did not apply to tax and customs enforcement. Basically, their argument boiled down to “the Bill of Rights doesn’t actually mean what it says because it would be inconvenient to put the burden of proof on the government in tax cases.” Civil forfeiture, BTW, was a key ingredient in the civil law procedures of Admiralty and tax law.

    From Admiralty and tax law, the civil law has since been imported into administrative bodies of all sorts. At last count, there are twenty-something federal agencies with power to seize property and make arrests without common law due process. And in such administrative proceedings, the state has no burden of proof, and the defendant is not entitled to withhold incriminating evidence.

    The point of this long post, I guess, is that the Inquisition never really ended.

  9. A half-interesting point: George W. Bush specifically ran against the use of secret evidence, especially when he was campaigning up in the contested, Arab-heavy state of Michigan.

  10. Bloddy hell. I came here to read about civil rights violations. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition…
    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapons are fear, loyalty, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Cardinal Fang…bring the soft pillows.

    Ironically, indefinite detentions based on secret evidence, without due process, is forbidden under the PATRIOT Act. If the government wants to hold someone suspected of immigration & national security violations, they must provide the person with a court appearance within seven days, and must show cause to the court why the person should be detained. The “indefinite detention” permitted by the Act actually only permits a six month detention, after which the government must once again show cause in court to explain why the person must be held. If the detention is to be secretive, the government must also show cause.

    The incidents that the DOJ Inspector General has investigated appear to have been achieved outside of the scope of the PATRIOT Act. DOJ officials may avoid personal liability for civil rights violations, but they won’t be able to do so by hiding behind the PATRIOT Act, as much as a gullible public might believe that excuse.

  11. C’mon, get it right now. It’s fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms.

    I hereby sentence you to. . .THE COMFY CHAIR!:-)

  12. Wow, I didn’t know any of this. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t learn any of this in school, should I? And I’m not 😐

    Nor have I heard anything remotely like this from any part of the mass media. Pitifully, I’m not surprised by that either.

    Jeezus. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is incredibly dangerous.

  13. EMAIL:

    DATE: 12/10/2003 05:03:30
    There is no great genius without some touch of madness.

  14. EMAIL:
    DATE: 12/20/2003 09:20:47
    You do a good work, keep it going

  15. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/09/2004 01:19:35
    The world is a beautiful book for those who can read it.

  16. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/19/2004 02:15:53
    When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.

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