BOSTON -- For years, the researchers painstakingly recorded and transcribed oral histories from many of the leaders of the factions caught up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They pledged absolute secrecy to their subjects until after their deaths.
Carried out under the auspices of Boston College, founded in the mid-1800s to serve a growing population of Irish Catholic immigrants, the project aimed to provide a definitive history of a conflict with edges so sharp that people there still fear to speak openly of what they know.
Instead, court orders have undermined the confidentiality pledges, and the documents and tapes have become a trove for prosecutors, leading to this week's arrest of prominent republican leader Gerry Adams and igniting academic freedom and prosecutorial overreach disputes on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the basis of those interviews, Mr. Adams -- the president of Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army and now one of Northern Ireland's leading parties -- was arrested Wednesday for questioning in connection with the murder of a 37-year-old woman in 1972. The timing of the arrest raised suspicions among his supporters, as Sinn Fein had been poised to make significant gains in elections in the Republic of Ireland this month.
Mr. Adams, who turned himself in, is being questioned about one of the most heinous crimes during decades of violence in Northern Ireland: the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 wrongly believed to be an informant for the British army. She was dragged wailing from her home, as her children watched in horror, by men who made little effort to hide their identities. Her body was not found until 2003.
To this day, none of her children will identify the kidnappers for fear of still-active IRA splinter factions, though some have said they know who was involved and still see some culprits around the neighborhood.
Mr. Adams has vehemently denied involvement and did so again Wednesday. And his defenders have criticized U.S. courts for pursuing the documents at the request of British prosecutors.
The researchers -- Ed Moloney, a journalist living in New York, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA volunteer living in Ireland -- have cut ties with Boston College, saying it sold out them and their work, called the Belfast Project. They had recorded 26 interviews with former IRA members and 20 with former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group.
"It was on the basis of assurances from Boston College that their lawyers had vetted the contracts to be signed by the interviewees that said the final say in disclosure of any of this material was in the hands of the interviewees," Mr. Moloney said Thursday.
These disclosures led McConville's children to ask the Police Services of Northern Ireland for help in learning about their mother's murder. Police in turn contacted the U.S. Justice Department.
By treaty, the United States and Britain are obliged to help each other in criminal investigations, except in the case of overriding public policy or national security concerns. This treaty has undergirded one of the most important international relationships in the U.S. fight against terrorism, with British authorities often searching houses or gathering evidence for U.S. investigators.
But nothing in the treaty bars seizure of university records in a murder investigation, said Thomas V. Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director. "There's nothing sacred about that, that it's a university," he said.