‘Questions remain’ over possible bugging - GSOC

Judge says evidence does ‘not support’ the proposition that surveillance had occurred

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission said its own inquiries meant it was “satisfied that our databases were not compromised” and that “there was no evidence of Garda misconduct.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission said its own inquiries meant it was “satisfied that our databases were not compromised” and that “there was no evidence of Garda misconduct.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 18:24

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) says “question marks still remain” over allegations that its offices were bugged, despite a report from retired High Court judge John Cooke finding no evidence to support concerns actual surveillance took place.

Responding to the findings of the report, GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien said his office acted properly, professionally and proportionately after it launched a public interest inquiry into concerns of bugging.

“There is still an outstanding anomaly and in the words of the judge, as he says in these rather febrile areas, it’s difficult to know whether that could be in relation to unlawful intrusion,” he said.

“So, question marks still remain.”

Mr O’ Brien said an investigation was opened by GSOC because there were credible threats that indicated the office could be under surveillance.

“We closed the investigation because we found no definitive evidence,” he said.

“I rather regret the minister would have found this out in the newspaper. Events overtook us.”

Mr O’ Brien told RTÉ radio this morning he was not planning to step down from the organisation.

“I don’t think my position is untenable at all,” he said.

GSOC has said Mr Justice Cooke’s finding that evidence does not support the proposition that surveillance took place “mirrors” the findings from its own inquires.

Former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter welcomed the Cooke report saying the judge had applied fair procedures in the conduct of his inquiry.

In a statement this evening, Mr Shatter said he had dealt with the alleged surveillance “ in a straightforward, truthful and comprehensive way” as Minister for Justice.

“I reported to the House GSOC’s own conclusions that ‘no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was uncovered’ with regard to their offices. I also recounted that there was no identified connection between any member of An Garda Síochana and any of these matters, GSOC having in their own press release stated that ‘there was no evidence of Garda misconduct’”.

The Inquiry into Reports of Unlawful Surveillance of Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission focused on three alleged threats to GSOC.

Mr Justice Cooke found as “not convincing” the accounts that an wireless AV remote control device for audio and video equipment in GSOC was connecting and transferring data to an external Bitbuzz hotspot in a nearby café.

The judge also found that an alleged fake UK 3G network, which was detected on an iPhone as operating in the vicinity of GSOC’s offices, was “highly likely” to have been caused by the testing of a new 4G installation by a mobile provider.

On the third alleged threat, the “ring back” to a phone line in GSOC offices in the early hours of the morning, the judge found that it was impossible to “categorically rule all possibility of covert surveillance” but said it was clear that the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance of the kind asserted by The Sunday Times took place.

Mr Justice Cooke made the point that in the world of covert surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques, it was extremely difficult to determine with complete certainty whether unexplained anomalies were or were not attributable to unlawful intrusion.

In a statement issued early this morning GSOC said its own inquiries meant it was “satisfied that our databases were not compromised” and that “there was no evidence of Garda misconduct”.

Mr Cooke’s inquiry, published yesterday, found no evidence to support concerns that the GSOC offices were bugged.

The inquiry by Mr Cooke, was set up by the Government in response to a political controversy which developed after a report of bugging allegations was published in the Sunday Times newspaper last February.

“It is clear that the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance of the kind asserted in the Sunday Times article took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Síochána,” said the report.

Mr Justice Cooke criticised GSOC for opening an investigation into the bugging, saying it was premature and there was no evidence an offence had been committed.

He said the decision to commence the investigation was “heavily influenced” by general levels of frustration and tension between the Garda and GSOC, which meant suspicions were acted upon that may not otherwise have been.

In response to this finding GSOC said that “opinion should be read, as the report states, ‘in view of the additional information that has come to light in this Inquiry’.”

The allegations of bugging were first made public in a newspaper report on February 9th in which it was claimed that the offices of GSOC had been the “target of a sophisticated surveillance operation which used ‘Government-level technology’ to hack into its emails, wifi and phone systems”.

He also found that contrary to much comment during the controversy, there was a “mandatory obligation” on GSOC to furnish information in relation to its results to both the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner.

At the time that the alleged bugging came to light Taoiseach Enda Kenny and then Justice Minister Alan Shatter were heavily criticised for saying this was the case.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald told RTE this morning GSOC was an important body that had to been seen as “working correctly”.

“I have confidence in the individuals running GSOC,” she said.

“Undoubtedly trust between GSOC and the gardaí has taken a hit,” she said.

“There is bridge building to be done. And there’s culture change required as well.”

Last night Ms Fitzgerald thanked Mr Justice Cooke for his “comprehensive, evidence-based report and its findings which were both clear and measured. I am very grateful to Judge Cooke for his detailed and authoritative analysis of these issues.”

The Minister said the Government accepted in full the findings and conclusions of the report.

“It is vital that there is strong public confidence in the Garda Síochána and the system of oversight of the Garda Síochána. That is why it was so important to have an independent and rigorous examination . . . especially in circumstances where it was suggested that such surveillance might have been carried out by the Garda Síochána.”

Ms Fitzgerald last night noted that GSOC did not report to the Minister when they should have.

She also said that the proposed new Bill to reform GSOC would clarify the legal basis under which the Commission can initiate a public interest investigation.

She added it would also further clarify and strengthen the provisions relating to the preparation and implementation of protocols for cooperation between the gardaí and GSOC.

Acting Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan said the force acknowledges the judge’s finding that “the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance...took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Síochána”.

She said An Garda also acknowledges that the working relationship between An Garda Síochána and GSOC needs to be more constructive and said the force was committed to building on that positive engagement with GSOC.

Garda Representative Association general secretary PJ Stone said it welcomed the independent inquiry conducted around the security of data that GSOC holds.

“From the outset I did not believe there was any garda involvement in this and the report has removed this suspicion. However, it highlights that any proposed increase in GSOC’s powers should be counterbalanced with strong oversight,” he said.

“ I remain concerned that in the whole debate, no one has considered the implications for individual gardaí- their security and personal safety would have been threatened by any external surveillance. That is extremely serious.”