How Tango Squad evolved from watching a gangster to the Garda 'Big Brother'
Under the Crime and Security regime, centralised intelligence gathering has expanded hugely, writes Jim Cusack
In the Eighties, gardai appeared impotent in their dealings with the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. He was responsible for a series of high-profile robberies and most spectacularly the theft of prize paintings from the collection of Sir Alfred Beit of the Beit diamond dynasty, from Russborough House in Co Wicklow. The haul, including one of the last remaining Vermeers in private hands, would be worth several hundred million euro on the legitimate open market now.
Cahill, poorly educated and from an impoverished background, was an assiduous planner and thought carefully about the tactics gardai would use against him. He was aware of how advances in forensic science were helping to catch criminals in Britain and new techniques were being worked on in the State Forensic Laboratory at Garda HQ.
In May 1982, believing that improvements in forensic science would link him to robberies and other crimes, he arranged for the State's chief forensic scientist, Dr James O'Donovan, to be murdered. Explosives were attached to the exhaust manifold in Dr O'Donovan's car. As he drove to work, the heat from the manifold detonated the plastic explosive, causing permanent crippling injury to the doctor. At the time it was believed the IRA had carried out the attack as it was not thought possible that Cahill or any ordinary criminal could arrange such a bomb attack.
Cahill kidnapped and kneecapped the civil servant Brian Purcell, now Secretary General of the Department of Justice, who signed the order stopping his social welfare payments in 1984. He also broke into the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions and stole up to 40 files on his and others' crimes.
The response by Garda management, in the face of a media circus building up around the seemingly untouchable criminal, was to set up a team to keep him under permanent surveillance. Each Garda district in Dublin was ordered to provide two gardai to join the Central Detective Unit's (CDU) 'special surveillance unit', which was given the nickname 'Tango Squad' after the radio call sign allotted to Cahill – Tango One.
It was the first time a non-detective plain clothes unit had been operated in the area of "ordinary crime". Its role was not to investigate and prosecute Cahill but to deter him from planning or carrying out further crimes and make reports on his movements and contacts. The Tango Squad's job was to follow Cahill and report back to the CDU headquarters in Harcourt Square, not to investigate his crimes. This was a significant departure. Previously, only the Special Branch had done this type of work, building up intelligence profiles on the IRA and other subversive groups.
Martin Callinan, the recently retired Garda Commissioner, was one of the gardai drafted in from uniformed duties in Blanchardstown to the Tango Squad. As happens in other large organisations, once a unit or department is set up with a specific task, it tends to take on a life of its own, begins acquiring more work and expands. This happened with the Tango Squad.
From Cahill's time, detectives saw a change from gathering evidence with a view to prosecution to more and more surveillance and intelligence gathering.
The 'intelligence' gathered from the close surveillance of other criminals at first stayed within the collating offices of CDU but, increasingly and then entirely, information began flowing into the expanding Crime and Security division at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. The old 'C3', as Crime and Security was historically known, had been a small operation that handled high-level criminal intelligence which was fed directly to commissioners. As the years went on, Crime and Security became the receptacle of all non-subversive criminal intelligence.
Its greatest boost came in the aftermath of the Judge Morris tribunal into the activities of a small group of renegade gardai in Donegal. One of his main recommendations was to cease the practice of detectives personally handling informants, the modus operandi of crime detection at district level policing since the 19th Century. A detective in Donegal had corruptly handled two informants so, after the Morris report in 2005, all detectives across the country were directed to no longer handle informants. They were instead to be passed over to non-detective plain clothes officers operating out of centralised CHIS (covert human intelligence sources) offices.
These CHIS offices – two in Dublin and one in each divisional headquarters around the country – feed upwards to Crime and Security in the Phoenix Park which expanded again to meet this new inflow. Tapes from divisional garda headquarters – at the centre of the latest Garda controversy and the apparent cause of Martin Callinan's departure from office – were also supposed to be sent up to Crime and Security. Some stations were said to have done this assiduously, others not at all.
Crime and Security does not investigate anything. Where it deems there is 'intelligence' of a sufficient significance to help solve crime, it passes it downwards to district level detectives for investigation. The reports that come down from Crime and Security are generally derided by detectives. One retired senior detective in Dublin described the reports that reached him as "generally shite ... they ended up in the bin".
The low level of prosecutions in gangland murders and other serious crimes – only around 10 per cent of murders lead to court cases – is often put down to the collapse in proper detective work that has happened alongside the increase in centralised intelligence gathering under the Crime and Security regime.
At some point, it seems much more than crime-related intelligence also began flowing into Crime and Security. The very minor event of TD Mick Wallace being cautioned for talking on his mobile phone while driving in north inner Dublin went up from Store Street garda station via Crime and Security to the Garda Commissioner's office.
Data Commissioner Billy Hawkes is still considering whether or not justice minister Alan Shatter breached the Data Protection Act by publicly revealing this information on RTE. His report into the Garda's handling of data published last month gave the first insight into the extent of intelligence gathering and the handling of non-subversive intelligence by gardai.
While he generally gave gardai a clean bill of health for the way they handled and protected intelligence, he did reveal that he was told that gardai had applied for some 1,829 "requests for disclosure" from telecom and internet companies in the month of January 2012. If this is an average monthly total, then gardai would appear to be seeking details of over 20,000 phone and broadband subscribers per annum.
The bulk of the January 2012 requests were telecom subscriber requests – 1,296. There were 1,296 subscriber requests, 494 call trace requests and 39 IP (computer address) requests. A great deal of this material filters upwards to Crime and Security. The Data Commissioner's teams examined only a handful of these requests in detail and found nothing untoward.
A core traditional function of C3 was also to collate information about suspected corrupt gardai. This function still exists under Crime and Security but, sources say, has also expanded in recent years to spy on gardai suspected of speaking to journalists.
This appears to have begun in the aftermath of one particular story in September 2003. It is understood gardai detailed to investigate the suspected leaking of a story sought records of phone traffic between crime journalists who had covered the story and gardai.
As it happened, none of the journalists had been notified of the story by any gardai. The story came from a tipster who listened in on the old VHF garda radio system and alerted The Star.
This type of snooping – with all detail feeding into Crime and Security – expanded in the aftermath of the 2005 Garda Siochana Act, the legislative enactment of Judge Morris's recommendations with one key addition thrown in by the Department of Justice. This was the Section 62 ban on the 'unlawful disclosure' of information with punishment of up to seven years' imprisonment and/or a €70,000 fine.
Hints, and in some cases direct warnings, began issuing from Crime and Security to gardai suspected of leaking information to journalists. One inspector who was drafted in to carry out one of these 'investigations' reputedly rang a superintendent and asked him directly why he was speaking to a reporter.
This type of mentality, whereby a junior officer can ask a superior to account for a perfectly legitimate conversation, sources say, has come about by a process of evolution under successive governmental and garda controllers who have succeeded in creating an all-seeing apparatus which is hidden from public view.
There is no apparatus to shine light on the operations of Crime and Security. Hawkes' examination from a data perspective threw a little more light on the subject but his team performed only a tiny and random trawl through the intercept records.
Supreme Court judge Nial Fennelly's examination of the garda station bugging and any impact on the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder investigation might provide an opportunity to consider how a small squad of plain clothes gardai (known as 'buckshees' because they didn't even receive the detectives' allowance) set up to follow one Dublin criminal turned into the country's Big Brother.