Garda to investigate surveillance allegations

 

The Garda Commissioner, Mr Pat Byrne, has appointed a senior garda to investigate allegations that RTE journalists George Lee and Charlie Bird have been under surveillance.

Mr Byrne appointed a superintendent in the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation to report to him as quickly as possible on the allegations, reported in yesterday's Irish Independent. The journalists, who first reported the National Irish Bank scandal, were reported to have been told they were under surveillance by former Defence Force rangers using high-tech equipment to listen to mobile phone conversations.

A spokesman for NIB has said the bank would never sanction surveillance on anyone.

In a statement, the Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue, said he would await the findings of the Garda inquiry before commenting. However, the allegations have been greeted with scepticism by senior gardai and those working in the surveillance business. A senior Garda source said yesterday that the journalists had been given a routine warning about changing their mobile phone numbers. The source said gardai investigating the NIB scandal were not aware of any specific allegations of surveillance. "Warned is not the right word. What we said was no different to what we say to people every day of the week, to take normal precautionary measures. We would advise people, as a normal precautionary measure, that if they think somebody is putting them under surveillance to change their phone number."

However Mr Lee said an "impeccable security source . . . told us they knew we were under surveillance".

Mr Lee said some of the incidents involving his home and mobile telephones had been "stuff that makes the hair on your neck stand up". Other members of his family had been convinced the phones were tapped, and at least one of their contacts in the NIB story was also being "followed".

In one case, a close family member had phoned him while he was talking on the phone to someone else; the family member could hear his conversation but could not be heard, he said.

In another incident, he had left work in RTE one night to find his car unlocked. He was "absolutely certain" he had locked it, but thought nothing of it at the time. In the worst case, working on a completely separate story, he lost an important contact because of interference on the line. His source had been about to read the contents of a Government memo, when his voice was obliterated by noise. He rang him back twice and the same thing happened, until eventually his contact refused to talk further: "He said: `Your phone's tapped.' ???"

Meanwhile, the gardai have taken about 400 complaints in relation to the NIB investigation. It is expected that up to 30 of the complaints will be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions for criminal prosecution. "But we're a long way from the DPP yet," a senior source said.

Investigating gardai have discovered that a senior NIB official who was named in an internal report into overcharging of customers was later promoted. The Democratic Left spokesman on finance, Mr Pat Rabbitte, called on NIB to publish the findings of an internal investigation by its parent company, National Australia Bank. Mr Rabbitte said the chief operating officer for NIB, Mr Philip Halpin, had said almost three weeks ago that he would publish the findings of a report into the offshore Clerical Medical Insurance Scheme.

The Fine Gael spokesman on justice, Mr Jim Higgins, said he welcomed the Garda investigation into the surveillance allegations.