JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has demanded a full explanation of allegations that the Garda Ombudsman has been the victim of a sophisticated spying operation using "government-level" technology.
A report carried out for the watchdog by security consultants found a phone had been bugged using eavesdropping equipment to monitor conferences on sensitive investigations, according to weekend accounts.
The report allegedly concluded that the ombudsman was being targeted using restricted technology, which is not commercially available or sold to non-government agencies.
Mr Shatter is extremely concerned that he was not told of the findings by the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), the watchdog which deals with complaints against gardai.
Mr Shatter has summoned representatives from the agency to a meeting today for a comprehensive explanation.
Underlining how seriously the Government is taking the matter, the Taoiseach has also ordered a report from Mr Shatter for tomorrow's weekly Cabinet meeting.
"I haven't read the detail of it yet, but obviously I will ask the minister to give a report to us at Cabinet on Tuesday," Enda Kenny told the Irish Independent.
Mr Shatter was kept in the dark about the allegations, with his office confirming that he only became aware of the matter through media reports yesterday.
Senior gardai appear to have been unaware of the investigation even though the Garda watchdog hired a UK company to "integrity test" its systems after becoming suspicious that its offices were under surveillance.
The surveillance is believed to have started some time after December 2011 when Simon O'Brien, Kieran Fitzgerald and Carmel Foley were appointed by Mr Shatter to lead the body.
It is not clear if any individuals were targeted directly.
GSOC is an independent statutory body with responsibility for investigating complaints against members of An Garda Siochana.
GSOC refused to make any comment on the allegations and would not say why it did not alert either the gardai or Government about its probe.
Last night the Ombudsman declined to make any comment in response to 13 questions put to the commission by the Irish Independent.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has also expressed unease at the reports.
"I don't think anybody, any public official, should be secretly recorded," he told the Irish Independent.
"I don't know anything about it, but as a general principle I don't think any public official should be bugged or have their phones bugged," he said.
Fianna Fail justice spokesman Niall Collins called on Mr Shatter to make an urgent public statement on what he described as "these extraordinary claims".
Mr Collins said the idea that someone or some organisation was engaged in covertly monitoring the Ombudsman was deeply unsettling and risked undermining public confidence.
"The minister needs to come forward and state whether he has spoken to the Ombudsman and whether he was aware of this surveillance.
"If he was, he needs to explain why on Earth this was going on.
"If he wasn't, we need to get answers very quickly on who was responsible," Mr Collins added.
The report in a Sunday newspaper suggested that the Ombudsman decided to hire a British security consultancy company after it became concerned that its internal communications system was being bugged.
The consultants allegedly concluded that the commission was being targeted using controlled technology, which was not commercially available or sold to non-government agencies.
The Ombudsman decided to "integrity test" its communications network last summer after concerns were raised about internal security. It brought in consultants, who included former staff of the British GCHQ telecommunications monitoring agency.
It was subsequently discovered that a test on a speaker phone in a room used regularly to hold case conferences on sensitive investigations had been bugged and used to eavesdrop on meetings.
It is also claimed the consultants found the Ombudsman's wi-fi network had been compromised to steal emails and other confidential data and possibly listen in to mobile phone calls.
A second wi-fi system had been created to allow the data to be examined, using an IP address in Britain while electronically concealing the identities and whereabouts of those involved in the spying.
The report said the Ombudsman had sought help from the British Independent Police Complaints Commission with counter-surveillance systems.
It claimed the company, whose staff included former members of Britain's military and security services, carried out its work to prevent the investigation from being compromised by Ombudsman staff.
However, it is not clear how long the Ombudsman allegedly had the findings and why it decided to keep them secret.
It is also a mystery why the Ombudsman has declined to comment since the report clearly infers that the bugging was carried out by a government agency, which could access the type of sophisticated equipment allegedly involved in the bugging operation.
Tom Brady, Security Editor