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EDITORIAL - Frank Phipps' inglorious moment

Published:Sunday | February 13, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Folly is never more grotesque than when there is an attempt to emboss it with high-minded virtue.

That is why there is this sense of the macabre over recent actions by the eminent lawyer, Mr Frank Phipps, QC, at the hearings of the commission of enquiry into the Jamaican Government's handling of the extradition request by the United States in 2009 for the notorious Christopher Coke, including the hiring of lobbyists in an apparent attempt to get the Americans to change their mind.

It took nine months for the Government to agree to hand over Mr Coke, at the cost of damaged diplomatic relations and domestic instability, including a real threat to the Jamaican State by irregulars loyal to Mr Coke who attempted to resist his capture.

The Coke affair did much damage to the Jamaican Government and the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and its leader and prime minister, Mr Bruce Golding. Mr Coke was very close to the JLP and had his operational base in Mr Golding's West Kingston parliamentary constituency.

Mr Phipps, a celebrated attorney, is representing the JLP at the commission of enquiry.

Among the harshest critics of the Government's handling of the Coke extradition has been Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, the former head of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), who became police commissioner when he retired and was in that job at the time of the request for Coke's extradition. He gave evidence at the commission and was cross-examined by Mr Phipps, who suggested that Mr Lewin was tipped off about the extradition request by his wife, who works at the US Embassy in Kingston.

Phipps corrected

Mr Phipps, in a seemingly innocuous error, suggested that Mrs Lewin worked in intelligence at the embassy. He was corrected to the fact that she worked in the narcotics unit.

It appeared to us to have been a Valerie Plame moment, mirroring the unmasking by members of the Bush White House of Ms Plame, a senior CIA agent and the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had been critical of the evidence the Bush administration hoped to use to justify the invasion of Iraq. In the Plame unmasking - for which Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, was convicted - ideology and partisan consideration trumped national security interests.

Mr Phipps defended his naming of Mrs Lewin, arguing that her name appears on the embassy's website, although it makes no connection whatsoever to her relationship with her husband.

Subsequently, Mr Phipps attempted to get Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Cole, the JDF's legal officer, to disclose, in the public hearing, the name of the head of the military intelligence unit. Colonel Cole's lawyer objected, but Mr Phipps insisted.

Fortuitously, Hugh Small, QC, who represents Mr Golding, intervened. He suggested that the matter be addressed in camera. Mr Small urged caution against "excursions into areas that would cause damage to the defence and intelligence apparatus of the country".

He is right.

This enquiry is not about who first knew about the extradition request, but how it was handled, and if that was in the best interests of Jamaica. We can get to the truth without scorched-earth policies or gratuitous 'unmaskings' that might set up people.

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