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Tuesday 25 July 2017

Exclusive: Inside the murky world of phone taps and Garda intelligence

  • Public had phones tapped
  • High-profile politicians targeted
  • State signed off on pay-offs
The Irish Independent has learned that garda management has now been forced to strengthen its controls surrounding the monitoring of phone calls after the senior garda blew the whistle. Photo: RollingNews.ie
The Irish Independent has learned that garda management has now been forced to strengthen its controls surrounding the monitoring of phone calls after the senior garda blew the whistle. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

AN Irish Independent investigation has found that innocent members of the public had their phones tapped by Garda intelligence.

Our investigation has also seen accounts of where a decorated detective has said he was put under pressure to routinely bypass strict protocol to listen in on private conversations for almost a decade.

The officer says, according to court documents, that he came under so much pressure to tap phones without having a court order, it took a toll on his health.

We also found:

  •  gardaí tapped phones of innocent members of the public they confused with criminals
  •  phone taps by gardaí were put on the wrong people
  •  one officer said he felt under pressure to place taps on phones without legal authority
  •  when the officer raised concerns with his superiors about this activity, his authorities sidelined him
  •  when the officer sued over his treatment, the State settled the case in the last few weeks

The State avoided the full extent of the phone tapping scandal being made public after agreeing an out-of-court settlement with the senior officer who repeatedly raised concerns about the legality of the covert surveillance.

The settlement was made just days after the force was rocked by the Tusla sex abuse file scandal. It is understood the State also agreed to pay off a number of other garda and other plaintiffs within the space of a few hours on the same day last February.

The most sensitive case that garda bosses tried to keep under wraps centres upon a former detective involved in the force’s Crime and Security Section at Garda HQ.

Read More: Improper eavesdropping techniques undermine our basic rights

The Crime and Security Department is essentially the force’s secret service. The officer, in his suit against the State, said he repeatedly flagged his concerns about suspected illegal phone tapping within the force. The detective was tasked with intercepting phones calls for almost a decade. He is an officer who was decorated for valour and assigned some of the most sensitive investigations involving terrorists and major organised criminals.

Wiretaps were routinely placed on the phones of the country’s most well-known criminals uncovering significant information and intelligence. A lot of this intelligence led to successful prosecutions including against well known criminal figures - some of whom became household names jailed for drug trafficking. It also uncovered evidence against terrorists later found guilty of directing IRA activities.

Read More: Phone-tapping hits all private citizens

The facility to intercept mobile phone calls by the “Monitoring Unit” of the Crime and Security Section only become available to gardaí in 2002 and led to a series of successful criminal prosecutions.

However, concerns began to be raised that pressure was being put on act outside the law by placing phone taps without the necessary court orders.

It is alleged:

  • innocent members of the public have also had their phone conversations listened to without their knowledge.
  • Garda management were also warned that warrants for phone taps were being put in place where officers provided little or no documentation to support their justification.
  • many of the applications for warrants were sloppy and had no supportive documentation.
  • when concerns were raised, the detective felt he was sidelined and offered a transfer out of the Crime and Security Department
  • in one case the officer felt the motivation for the phone tap was “political”.

Our investigation also uncovered information that during the monitoring of terror suspects’ calls, conversations with politicians were heard.

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.

“In relation to lawful interception, the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulation) Act 1993 provides that an authorisation for interception may only be granted by Ministerial warrant on application from the Garda Commissioner (and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces) and only for the purposes of the investigation of serious crime or protecting the security of the State.

“The provisions of both Acts are subject to independent judicial oversight by Judges of the High Court,” the statement said.

“The Designated Judge has complete and unrestricted access to all cases, documents, records, and personnel pertaining to the operation of the relevant legislation.

“In addition, each Designated Judge reports to the Taoiseach on an annual basis on the operation of the legislation. These reports are laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.”

The spokesman said the legislation provides for a complaints mechanism if an individual believes they have been subject to surveillance or whose communications have been intercepted. In these cases, individuals may apply to the Complaints Referee.

Surveillance

The Department of Justice said it would not be appropriate to comment on the officer’s allegations given that he pursued a legal action against the State.

Had the case surrounding phone tapping been heard by the High Court, senior officers would have been forced to give unprecedented testimony about the force’s covert surveillance.

The Irish Independent has learned that garda management has now been forced to strengthen its controls surrounding the monitoring of phone calls after the senior garda blew the whistle.

But the claims that garda bosses repeatedly ignored concerns surrounding the application of phone taps is likely to cause alarm within political circles.

The allegations pre-date the tenure of Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan, who is  facing major questions over her handling of the Templemore College scandal.

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