Questions for Garda Ombudsman Commission to answer before committee today
Confusion still surrounds details of the three ‘technical anomalies’ as well as GSOC’s decision not to inform Minister for Justice Alan Shatter
The responses by politicians and commentators to the disclosure by the Garda Síochána Ombdusman Commission of suspected surveillance have veered from ‘much ado about nothing’ to various ‘third gunmen on the grassy knoll’ conspiracies.
The principal reason for this is that, three days after the story was first reported in The Sunday Times , many of the key events, actions (and inactions) have yet to be fully explained.
The three GSOC Commissioners will attend a meeting of the Public Service Oversight and Petitions Committee in Leinster House at 4pm today. Among the questions that committee members of this committee ¨– which is chaired by Sinn Féin TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn - may wish to put are the following ones:
1. The GSOC sa id the security sweep it carried out was routine and indicated it was the second such sweep carried out. The Committee may want to satisfy itself that such sweeps were standard for such an agency and that the Commissioners are in a position to rule out any event or suspicion that might have prompted such a sweep being ordered.
2. The first anomaly related to a wi-fi device. Yesterday Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said it was the property of GSOC and had been acquired six or seven years ago and placed in the boardroom. It had never been used, could not communicate with the database, and nobody knew of its password. What kind of wi-fi device was it? Was it a router or something like a printer or other electronic device that is capable of being used over a wi-fi connection? The security sweep found that it it was connected with an outside wi-fi network. How could this happen? Could it happen by accident or automatically when switched on? Was it firewalled for example? Or was there any likelihood that it could not have linked with the outside network without deliberate intervention or interference.
3. The Commissioners will be required to give a very full explanation in lay terms of the second issue that was identified. This concerned a telephone in the chairman’s office. In Mr Shatter’s speech yesterday he referred to a test that involved sending an audio signal down the telephone line. Immediately, the phone rang. It has not been explained in simple terms what the significance of this was. Did it suggest that somebody had connected the phone with a listening device remotely and this test was designed to force the listening text to ring back? One of the GSCO commissioners Kieran Fitzgerald said on RTÉ’s Primetime last night that the chances of this being benign or by chance was “remote to zero”. If this statement is read on its face, it essentially means that surveillance was in place. There is no other interpretation possible.
4. The third issue was identified after a later sweep. The UK-based investigators discovered an “unexpected UK 3G network” in the area. The upshot was that any mobile phone with a UK-registered number might be vulnerable. The Minister said that nobody in the GSOC had a UK-registered phone. What kind of a 3G network was it? It does not seem to have been a network associated with any of the big mobile operators but a specific one that was placed in the area. Can the GSOC and its security advisers be certain the network was there? If so, what possible reasons - including innocent ones - could there be for such a network to be placed there. How do such networks work. Is there a mobile transmitter or mast? Is it done by computer or by telephone? Is such technical equipment easy to access? Could it have been one of the communications companies doing routine maintenance work using a test transmitter (to test for signal strength etc.) Can we be sure that none of the staff in the GSOC carried UK mobiles? And if somebody wanted to listen in to Irish-registered mobile phones, would they use similar technology or simply piggyback on the phone’s service provider? Again it is very technical, but GSOC will have to give as full an explanation as is possible to ease public disquiet.
5. GSOC will be asked by committee members to say if it suspected a particular agency of being behind the alleged surveillance. Its statement on Monday was telling. It said there was no evidence of any Garda misconduct. By saying that, it immediately put the Garda in the frame, and the clear implication taken by many (including the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan) was that GSOC investigated the possibility that the Garda was involved but found no evidence to support it. Committee members will ask the commissioners if they held such a view or suspicion at any stage. The problem with the line in the statement that purports to ‘clear’ the Garda of any misconduct is that its effect is the exact opposite - the finger of suspicion is suddenly pointed at the police force. Hence, the angry response from Callinan.
6. The Government was wrong in its interpretation of S80(5) the Garda Siochána Act 2005. For two days Taoiseach Enda Kenny and others argued that the Act required the GSOC to draw the Minister’s attention to other matters “because of their gravity or other exceptional circumstances”. The Act does not such thing. The section actually states that the GSCO “may” make a report. If it stated the GSOC “shall” make a report, it would be obligatory. But because the verb “may” is used, it affords the GSOC discretion and it is not obliged to make such a report.
That’s according to the letter of the law. And the Government and Enda Kenny were factually incorrect on that point.
But from a political and public interest perspective, there is a very strong argument there was an onus on the GSOC to inform the Minister of such unusual, serious and worrying discoveries.
Otherwise, it suggests it is operating in a vacuum in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion with the Garda Síochána on the one hand and the Minister for Justice on the other.
What may need to be teased out today is not only the relationship between the GSOC and the Garda (which is poor) but also its relationship with the Minister for Justice, to see if there are any issues or concerns. Both Mac Lochlainn and Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins claimed yesterday that the GSOC don’t trust the Minister, and that the Minister has far too close a relationship with the Garda. These views are sure to get an airing today.
7. GSOC has handed the report on the security sweep and subsequent investigation to the Minister for Justice? Will it hand the report to Mac Lochlainn’s committee?