Friday, February 02, 2007

Truth, lies and the law, US style

There is a high profile trial going on in the US at the moment which won't have registered with too many people on this side of the pond. Sooter Libby, former chief of staff of Vice Presient Cheney, is charged with lying to federal prosecutors investigating the Bush administration's leak of the identity of CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, had publicly criticised the administration for claiming that Iraq had been seeking weapons grade Uranium in Niger. In the light of the Libby trial, Edward Lazurus has been thinking about how the law in the US treats the telling of truth and lies.

"At the Top of the Hierarchy: The Lies (and Truths) For Which We Jail the Tellers

At the top of the punishment pyramid are those lies we consider so reprehensible that we will send people to jail for telling them.

Among current news stories, the Libby trial is the most obvious example. Society places a very high value on telling the truth to government investigators, or to grand juries investigating crimes. The same is true of sworn statements in court; if false, they constitute the crime of perjury. In such circumstances, deliberately misrepresenting the truth is a felony.

By the same token, however, you can also go to jail for telling the truth - at least if you aren't forthcoming about how you came by the truth.

Consider the BALCO steroids scandal, in which a federal grand jury has been considering whether to indict a variety of professional athletes, including baseball star Barry Bonds, in connection with their alleged use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Not long ago, a couple of enterprising reporters wrote a very well-received book about the scandal, based in part on secret grand jury testimony that had been leaked to them.

It isn't a crime to receive or to publish such grand jury testimony (though it is a crime to leak it). Moreover, no one has suggested that the two journalists somehow misreported or distorted what was said in the grand jury. And it's pretty hard to argue that the journalists' work was not of substantial public interest. But - like journalists across the country who come into possession of information relevant to whether someone else has committed a crime -- they've been threatened over and over again with jail for refusing to reveal their sources. "

Ironically in the steroids case the journalists look like the only ones in the entire affair in danger of being jailed and yet they were the ones who exposed the wrongdoing.

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