Leaked security sweep findings caused major policing crisis

A Garda Ombudsman security sweep turned into a national security crisis when details were leaked

While An Garda Síochana and its watchdog the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) have always endured a difficult relationship, the bugging controversy that erupted earlier this year brought it to a new low very rapidly.

While An Garda Síochana and its watchdog the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) have always endured a difficult relationship, the bugging controversy that erupted earlier this year brought it to a new low very rapidly.

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 23:37

While An Garda Síochana and its watchdog the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) have always endured a difficult relationship, the bugging controversy that erupted earlier this year brought it to a new low very rapidly.

A media report first appeared stating GSOC’s offices had been bugged.

And the controversy exploded when the commission issued a statement introducing the suggestion that the Garda must have been the chief suspect for the apparent spying.

How did all of this start?

On Sunday, February 9th, The Sunday Times newspaper carried a front page report saying a security sweep carried out for GSOC of its own offices in Dublin’s north inner city found evidence that its telephones and WiFi had been bugged.

The sweep was conducted by the UK private security company Verrimus during a number of visits in September, October and November of last year.

The report also suggested the equipment used in the bugging was not commercially available, suggesting the involvement of a State agency.

Everybody thought the Garda must be the prime suspect. But without any evidence, this suspicion was not publicly aired.

Opposition parties immediately seized on the fact that GSOC clearly did not feel it could go to the then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter or the Garda.

So what happened then?

The following day, GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien was called to Mr Shatter’s office to brief him. The Garda complaints body then released a statement that had the effect of significantly ratcheting up the crisis.

It never said it had definitive proof it was bugged but said three unexplained technical and electronic “anomalies” had been found.

It “regretted” taking the decision not to report the matter, before adding: “There was no evidence of Garda misconduct.”

It was the first time that any arm of official Ireland had introduced the prospect that the Garda was a suspect for spying on the body that investigates it.

Was the Garda happy its name was cleared?

That wasn’t exactly how they saw it. The then garda commissioner Martin Callinan was furious and said the mere mention of the Garda as possible suspects unfairly incriminated his force.

The Taoiseach weighed in saying of fundamental importance was the reasons why GSOC did not report its concerns to Mr Shatter, especially when it began a formal investigation and was duty bound to inform him.

He was quickly forced to backtrack and concede GSOC is independent and not answerably to Government in that way.

Mr Shatter continued to fight off calls for a public inquiry, saying there was no proof of bugging and therefore nothing to inquire into.

While Mr Callinan was furious publicly, he privately invited Mr O’Brien to Garda Headquarters for what were effectively clear the air talks.

Did GSOC ever say exactly what it had found?

Yes. Its members set this out clearly before the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions four days after the controversy broke.

They said a wireless device contained in its conference room was found to be connected to an external network, but there was no clear pattern to the connections and no third party involvement was suggested by the security sweeps.

The second anomaly centred on a telephone unit used for conference calls. It was situated inMr O’Brien’s office and was subjected to a number of tests to establish if it was under surveillance. Essentially, a signal was sent down the line and if it bounced back and caused the phone to ring, irregularity would be proven.

The phone did indeed ring. Mr O’Brien said the chances of the ring being caused by somebody calling the number at that exact moment in the early hours when the tests were done was described as “virtually zero” by the UK security experts.

The third threat was the presence of a UK 3G network, off which mobile phones would work. Its presence was seen as a possible effort to intercept calls.

But the commission could not rule out that such a device was being lawfully used in the vicinity of its building or that it was not directed at its building.

However, GSOC staff were so concerned about the findings that for a time they held meetings in a coffee shop close to its offices and were more careful about discussing official business by mobile phone.

Was GSOC very damaged by all of this?

Not really. The Government voiced its confidence in the agency through the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Mr Shatter. The matter generated a lot of debate around Garda oversight, with the need to strengthen GSOC’s powers very clearly emerging from that debate. Indeed, it has already been granted some of those powers.

However, a private security company asked by Mr Shatter to review the Verrimus report found that one of the anomalies identified was simply a wireless device in GSOC’s offices randomly connecting with a device in a coffee shop on the ground floor of its own building. That prove embarrassing for GSOC, even though that examination was a peer review rather than a detailed and definitive process.

The Government agreed it would review controversy. And despite Mr Shatter repeatedly insisting there would be no public inquiry, 11 days after the controversy broke it was announced Judge Cooke would examine the whole affair.