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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Watchdog defies calls to quit in 'bugging' debacle

GSOC refuses to rule out spying despite Shatter's assurances

Published 12/02/2014 | 02:30

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Simon O'Brien from the Office of the Garda Ombudsman
Simon O'Brien from the Office of the Garda Ombudsman

THE chairman of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) is defiantly resisting pressure to resign as a result of his handling of the "bugging" debacle.

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Former London Metropolitan Police commander Simon O'Brien came under fire after it emerged there was no definitive evidence to indicate that the commission's phones or databases had been spied on.

The findings of the British security company called in to investigate the surveillance fears were revealed by Justice Minister Alan Shatter after the Ombudsman had failed for almost two and a half days to say if the allegations were true. The Garda force had been the subject of what Mr Shatter called "completely baseless innuendo".

The head of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors called on Mr O'Brien to consider his position.

But GSOC said Mr O'Brien's position as its chairman was not in question and he would not be stepping down.

Despite the Dail assurances from Mr Shatter, Kieran Fitzgerald – who serves as a commissioner in the watchdog along with Mr O'Brien and Carmel Foley – last night again refused to rule out the possibility that the Ombudsman offices had been bugged.

Asked on RTE's 'Prime Time' if he believed they had been bugged, he said: "It is very difficult to say. It would be lovely to be able to say that we could be certain one way or another."

In a confusing statement issued on Monday, the Ombudsman had stated there was no evidence of garda misconduct – a phrase which had seemed to implicate the force in the controversy and led to Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan calling for clarification of the remarks.

The cloud of suspicion appeared to have been lifted by Mr Shatter when he told the Dail yesterday evening that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of the Ombudsman's offices had been found.

The initial allegations that "government-level technology" had been used to bug the Ombudsman's headquarters were made in a Sunday newspaper article.

Suspicions were immediately raised that the gardai had been involved in the alleged bugging. But despite that, the Ombudsman would not comment on the article on Sunday evening and remained silent for a further 24 hours until Mr O'Brien emerged from two-hour talks with Mr Shatter.

The Ombudsman then issued a statement on Monday night, which did not clarify whether or not its headquarters had been bugged and made the bizarre reference to the gardai, which heightened speculation that members of the force had been the initial prime suspects behind any bugging.

Last night, Mr Shatter said the Ombudsman had informed him that its databases had not been compromised.

"In other words, it has not been established that the offices of the Ombudsman Commission were subject to surveillance," he added.

Mr Shatter said everybody had seen the questions raised by Mr Callinan. The Ombudsman was an independent body and it had to determine how to respond to those questions.

He assumed that they might be addressed when members of the commission appeared before the Oireachtas Public Service Oversight and Petitions committee this afternoon.

He said that the commission had presented no information to him suggesting that the garda force was involved in any way in what gave rise to the concerns in its offices about security.

"I believe the vast majority of people hold the force in high regard, based on their personal experience of dealing with individual gardai. As minister, I have been determined to defend the force from unjust attack," Mr Shatter added.

But no organisation was perfect and when problems arose they had to be addressed, he said. He added he was a strong supporter of an effective mechanism for the independent examination of allegations made against gardai and believed this was not only in the public interest, but in the interests of the gardai.

But both organisations had a common interest, that persons exercised their powers in accordance with the law and that any wrongdoing was tackled effectively, he said.

Mr Shatter said the sweep carried out by British consultants Verrimus identified what had been described as two technical anomalies, which raised a concern of a surveillance threat to the Ombudsman.

A third potential issue was later identified. The first issue arose from a wi-fi device, which had been acquired by the Ombudsman in 2007/08 and was found to have connected to an external wi-fi network.

Located in the boardroom, this device was protected by a password. But the Ombudsman did not operate a wi-fi network and had never activated the device. There were concerns about the connection but it was unknown how this had taken place and did not result in any information being accessed.

TESTS

The second issue related to the conference-call phone in the chairman's office, which was subjected to tests.

The third issue involved the detection of an unexpected UK 3G network in the locality of the Ombudsman's offices, which suggested that UK phones registered to that network would be vulnerable to call interceptions. But none of the staff had a UK-registered phone, so it did not pose a threat to its systems.

Earlier, the head of the influential garda body, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, called on Mr O'Brien to consider his position.

AGSI general secretary John Redmond said: "It is outrageous that he (Mr O'Brien) did not seek an investigation by the gardai, who are responsible for investigating criminality in this State".

Tom Brady Security Editor

Irish Independent

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