Friday 18 August 2017

Scandal of phone taps rocks force in crisis

Detective sergeant claims he consistently raised concerns about the monitoring of certain phone calls

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is facing questions over the latest in a string of scandals involving gardai Photo: Justin Farrelly
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is facing questions over the latest in a string of scandals involving gardai Photo: Justin Farrelly
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

It was a routine morning at Garda headquarters as officers from the Crime and Security Branch sat down to meet members of Garda management.

Like all such conferences, the most high-profile cases were up for discussion.

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan is presiding over the force at a difficult time Photo: Gerry Mooney
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan is presiding over the force at a difficult time Photo: Gerry Mooney

Most involved conversations surrounding the gathering of intelligence relating to the most serious criminals, including those who posed a direct threat to the security of the State.

But there was a particularly sensitive case on the agenda at this particular meeting. It surrounded one of the most high-profile crimes in Irish history, the details of which we are withholding so as not to jeopardise any court cases.

Among those present at this meeting at Garda HQ was a detective sergeant who had a direct role in intercepting and analysing phone calls.

Part of his role was to file reports on these communications, the contents of which were crucial in gardai securing prosecutions and convictions of some of the country's most dangerous criminals.

Garda executive director of human resources John Barrett said a leasehold transaction is 'curious and will require a most careful and thorough review'
Garda executive director of human resources John Barrett said a leasehold transaction is 'curious and will require a most careful and thorough review'

The officer claims legal documents lodged with the courts reveal how he consistently raised concerns about the legality of the actions of officers involved in the monitoring of phone calls.

Politicians, solicitors and especially criminals have all had their conversations listened to, particularly since 2002 when mobile phone technology kicked in.

The majority of the phone tapping is provided for within the law.

But there were cases, including the one alluded to earlier, where things were simply not done above board.

Phone calls between criminals, spouses and solicitors were intercepted in a manner that was potentially illegal.

Time and time again, the detective sergeant would raise concerns.

He would seek legal clarification, asking simply: Are my actions, and those of my team, legitimate?

The majority of the time, he would be ignored.

The years went by and more of the most high-profile cases crossed the officer's desk.

But the stonewalling that this officer faced turned much more sinister.

As the success of the phone tapping increased, so too did the request for warrants.

The officer's team came under intense pressure to deliver results.

And so, according to legal documents lodged with the courts, the quality of the warrants deteriorated.

Gardai were now seeking to bug phones - but were providing little or no justification for doing so.

There were fewer applications that explained in detail why this or that particular suspect warranted having their phone monitored.

This, according to our information, resulted in situations where innocent people had their phones tapped.

The people will never know though - which, in itself, is deeply alarming.

The officer continued to be asked to prepare warrants by supervisors with no supporting information.

Once again, he sought legal clarification for him and his staff.

He cared deeply about his job, the badge he wore with pride, but especially the men and women who served under him.

This was a man not trying to be disruptive - he merely believed that the standards within his department had fallen far short of what the public should expect.

But his decision to speak out from within would eventually bring about his downfall.

On at least five occasions, the officer was directed to attend meetings during which he was excoriated by his superiors.

He dreaded attending work and suffered serious mental and physical health conditions.

He was trying to do what was right from within the confines of the organisation he loved so dear.

Things deteriorated further for the officer.

He would soon be excluded from case conferences, such as the ones which he had spoken out about before.

Eventually, management agreed to draw up a set of guidelines which would provide better scrutiny of warrant applications.

Despite this, the questionable warrant applications continued.

One in particular raised alarm bells for this officer - this time in relation to a tap that the officer suspected was sought for "political purposes".

Two days after flagging his concerns about the legality of the tap, it was cancelled by senior gardai.

But once again, the decorated officer was strongly encouraged to accept a transfer.

On this occasion, he reluctantly agreed.

He would soon say goodbye to a position he served with pride and integrity, within a force that appears as unaccountable as ever.

Sunday Independent

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