Saturday 22 July 2017

Revealed: Politician's election worker had phone bugged by gardai because 'he was a rival of a powerful Government minister'

- Politician's election activist had phone bugged

- Tap stopped after garda queried 'political purposes'

- Activist worked for constituency rival of minister

'The detective who challenged the activity feared gardai were acting for the benefit of the influential minister with or without his knowledge' (stock photo)
'The detective who challenged the activity feared gardai were acting for the benefit of the influential minister with or without his knowledge' (stock photo)
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

An election worker for a serving politician had his mobile phone tapped by gardai and the bugging stopped only when an officer raised a concern it was being done for "political purposes".

The wire-tapping occurred on the phone of the political party activist who was working for a constituency rival of a powerful Government minister.

The detective who challenged the activity feared gardai were acting for the benefit of the influential minister with or without his knowledge. He was transferred out of the force's intelligence department within two days of flagging his fears that the force was being used for "political purposes".

The revelation comes following a lengthy Sunday Independent investigation into the operation of the Garda's Crime and Security Section, effectively the State's secret service. The events occurred under a previous government and predate Noirin O'Sullivan's appointment as Garda Commissioner.

Court documents seen by the Sunday Independent also reveal that within two weeks of the officer raising his concerns about the bugging, he was transferred out of the force's intelligence section.

The individual whose phone calls were intercepted was actively involved in a well-known political party and was a close ally of one of the minister's constituency rivals.

The Garda detective who challenged his superiors about the legality of the wire-tap sought reassurance the activity was not related to any "political purposes".

Significantly, senior officers cancelled the tap just two days after the detective raised these concerns.

The development forms part of the latest set of revelations to come from our investigation into activities by the Garda's Crime and Security Section based in the force's HQ in the Phoenix Park.

At the heart of the allegations is that the Monitoring Unit in the Crime and Security Section was being put under pressure by gardai to tap phones without proper legal authority.

It is also claimed that shoddy and poorly substantiated applications were being used to obtain warrants to implement wire-taps.

The poor checks put into place before seeking warrants meant that in some cases, entirely innocent citizens had their conversations and texts monitored by the force.

While the Justice Minister of the day issues the warrant, he or she would not have sight of the documents submitted by gardai seeking to secure a tap in the first place.

In practice, applications were prepared by senior gardai and reviewed by the monitoring section.

The Garda Commissioner also wouldn't normally seek such information before sending the application on to the minister for approval.

But court documents seen by the Sunday Independent show that when one decorated officer raised concerns about the activity during a previous government, he felt ostracised.

When he raised a red flag about the activist's phone being tapped, the bugging of the phone was cancelled.

Months previously, the highly respected detective had raised concern about the poor processes and safeguards in place in the section, which is based out of Garda headquarters.

But after highlighting concerns about the prospect of a senior politician influencing a phone tap, the detective was transferred out of the highly sensitive unit within two days.

His fear was gardai may have been trying to appease a minister who feared the constituency rival.

The serious claims, made by the now-retired detective, are contained in court documents seen by the Sunday Independent. In February, he settled his case against the Garda Commissioner and the Justice Minister. The case was one of a number that were settled on the steps of the High Court within hours of each other.

The court documents chronicle the officer's treatment at the hands of his superiors after he voiced major concerns about the use of unorthodox methods to acquire phone tap approvals.

Among the claims made in the court documents are:

- The officer was isolated and "bullied" after uncovering the suspected abuse by gardai of phone intercept laws.

- There were "serious irregularities" relating to the way applications for intercept warrants were being processed.

- These ranged from imprecise applications for warrants and warrants based on "scant" and incorrect information leading to the interception of phones belonging to innocent third parties.

- The officer claims that complaints raised by him, many in writing, led to him being "isolated, bullied and harassed" before he was transferred to another division.

Over the course of almost a decade, it is alleged a significant number of innocent people had their phone calls intercepted due to the shoddy practice.

A Garda spokesperson said the force does not comment on actions taken by third parties.

The statement also said that the carrying out of covert surveillance is enshrined in legislation and that authorisations for "intrusive surveillance" are granted by a court.

The revelations will place major pressure on the Government and Garda management to establish how deep the scandal goes.

Our investigation into the phone-tapping culture within Garda intelligence comes exactly 35 years after it was revealed political journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold had their phones tapped.

The warrant was issued by then Justice Minister Sean Doherty amid apparent concerns about leaks to newspapers from within the then Fianna Fail government.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent last night, Mr Arnold said the latest revelations have "brought us back to an area that I thought we had finished with".

He said an urgent Government response is now required, and claims that independent third parties had their calls intercepted must be investigated.

"We have had months of revelations about the guards and it now time we called a halt and brought in the adequate powers to prevent this type of practice from happening," he said.

Sunday Independent

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