As many questions as answers remain in GSOC controversy

Analysis: When you remove all the noise that four questions have not been addressed, writes Harry McGee, Political Correspondent

The Garda Ombudsman Commission Office on Dublin’s Upper Abbey Street, Dublin 1. Photograph: Collins.

The Garda Ombudsman Commission Office on Dublin’s Upper Abbey Street, Dublin 1. Photograph: Collins.

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 14:59

Various Government figures said earlier that they hope to draw a line under the controversy surrounding alleged surveillance of the Garda Síochána Ombdudsman Commission Office off Capel Street in Dublin 7.

That is not exactly an easy task and the opposition is baying for an independent inquiry. It is unclear if today’s decision to appoint a retired judge to examine the debacle will satisfy them.

The iciness between GSOC and An Garda Síochána seems to be of the permafrost variety rather than of a thawable nature. There is a Minister for Justice who has never knowingly used reverse gear. And not only are people still searching for answers, there is also a lot of disagreement on what the actual questions are.

A two-day debate will commence in the Dáil tonight on a Sinn Féin motion calling for an independent inquiry. The Bill will be introduced by Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, the party’s justice spokesman who is also chair of the Oireachtas oversight committee. The Government’s response will be given by Shatter, who will also be appearing before Mac Lochlainn’s committee tomorrow. So unless the Minister for Justice acts against type – his obstinate nature – the ongoing row will dominate the political agenda over the next two days.

Separately, Fianna Fáil is launching a Bill this afternoon calling for the powers of GSOC to be strengthened.

When you remove all the noise that has been generated by supporters of the Garda Síochána in the media over the past week, there are four questions of a fundamental nature that remain unanswered.

- The first: Was the GSOC office bugged?

- The second: If it was, who bugged it?

- The third: Why did GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien decide not to inform Alan Shatter?

- The fourth: Are there deficits in the structures or operations of GSOC, or in the legislation that set it up, that have been unearthed by the controversy?

There are still so many questions that have been left unanswered and it is debatable if any independent inquiry – no matter how robust – could get to the bottom of them.

What is certain is that much more specific knowledge about each of the three separate ‘anomalies’ needs to be put in the public domain. The Irish Independent this morning ran a report that seemed to throw cold water on the “potential threats”. The reports contended a wifi network in an Insomnia coffee house in the same building as GSOC can explain one of the “anomalies”. There was also a suggestion that the unknown UK network may have been triggered by the mobile phones of employees of Verrimus, the UK security company hired to conduct the security sweeps. Verrimus quickly responded on Twitter this morning. Its point was that the actual wifi network (bitbuzz) the device in the GSOC office connected to wasn’t the important point. What was important is that the device should not have been connecting to any device outside the GSOC offices.

It also stated bluntly that a mobile phone “CANNOT create a 3G base station”. In other words, the actual phones of the technical experts from Verrimus were not capable of being mistakenly recognised as a 3G network.

The Oireachtas Committee will need to interrogate the three potential threats at a deeper level. For example, Verrimus stated that the operation needed to set up a fake mobile 3G UK base station that was of Government standard. Is this the case? There has been some contributions in discussion boards and comments over the past week which suggest that there is equipment available to buy (it’s not cheap, mind) to carry out such clandestine operations.

There are some unanswered questions related to the second potential threat identified (which was always perceived as the most substantive), the possible compromise of the phone in the chairman’s office.

A signal was sent down the line to test whether somebody was listening covertly. The phone rang immediately afterwards. This was at 1am. Did the signal sent down the line automatically prompt or ‘force’ a return phone call from a listening device? Or would somebody have rung back manually? And if so, why on earth would they have done so?

If the GSOC offices were under surveillance, who was behind it? This is the key question. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan stated categorically at the weekend that no member of his force was behind it, either authorised or unauthorised. That is a very conclusive statement but it has not been tested. How can he say with certainty that none of his 13,000 gardaí were involved, especially if it were been done in a clandestine fashion.

It is clear from the briefing document prepared by GSOC for Shatter that its investigation was conducted on the basis that, if surveillance had occurred, there was a possibility it was carried out by a garda.

There is a background to this, and this is one area where Simon O’Brien may have been less than forthcoming initially. It is clear from everything that has been said and produced in the past week that GSOC suspected information was being compromised. The Sunday Times reported that GSOC was surprised that a senior garda was in possession of information that was internal. What was the nature of the information?

The recurring backstory to all of this controversy seems to be the GSOC investigation into the relationship between the drug dealer Kieran Boylan and gardaí who were responsible for his handling as an informant. GSOC concluded that prosecutions were warranted but the DPP decided not to proceed on the basis, inter alia, of national security considerations.

Relationships between the two organisations deteriorated during the investigation with GSOC making public its grievance about the lack of co-operation shown by the Garda authorities in terms of access to documents and material. Any inquiry should revisit of the Boylan case; if nothing else, it provides a lot of the context for the current impasse.

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