Tuesday 21 November 2017

Innocent people 'wrongly tapped as if they were dealing drugs'

Phone tapping is the latest scandal to hit the gardaí. Stock picture
Phone tapping is the latest scandal to hit the gardaí. Stock picture

Niall O'Connor and Cormac McQuinn

Thousands of Garda man hours were wasted tapping the phones of innocent people as part of investigations into crimes as serious as drug dealing, the Irish Independent can reveal.

Some of the taps were left active on the phones of innocent third parties for weeks - and were cancelled only when officers flagged their concern about their legitimacy.

An Irish Independent investigation has detailed how for almost a decade officers routinely bypassed the force's protocols to listen in on private conversations.

It was further reported that an election worker for a serving politician is alleged to have had his mobile phone tapped by gardaí - and the bugging stopped only when a detective raised concerns it was serving "political purposes".

The detective who challenged the activity feared gardaí were acting for the benefit of the influential minister with or without his knowledge. He was transferred out of the force's intelligence department within two weeks of flagging his fears the force was being used for "political purposes".

But after fresh developments yesterday, it can be revealed that some gardaí who encouraged their junior counterparts to bypass the procedures surrounding phone tapping were promoted to senior ranks within the force.

Major concern was also expressed by officers after it emerged phone taps applied as part of investigations into suspected drug dealing were instead placed on phones belonging to innocent citizens living in different parts of the county.

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These individuals weren't informed by gardaí that internal blunders had led to their calls being listened to.

Now with the issue set to be raised in the Dáil, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar described this newspaper's revelations as issues of "great concern".

He said he expected Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to brief Cabinet on the matter, but added the matters date to before Fine Gael was in office.

"Nonetheless, it's a matter of real concern that such a strong power, the power to engage in surveillance, could be abused in any way that any individual citizens could have their privacy breached or their rights infringed," Mr Varadkar said.

The Dublin West TD said he wanted to hear what Ms Fitzgerald had to say before considering whether there should be a public inquiry into phone tapping.

Sinn Féin has called on Ms Fitzgerald to come before the Dáil to answer questions over the allegations. Labour and Fianna Fáil too say the matters have caused grave concern.

Much of the revelations surrounding the phone tapping are contained in court documents that relate to a High Court action taken by a retired detective.

The documents show how the decorated officer felt intimidated and bullied before being moved aside after he raised concerns about the shoddy practices within Garda intelligence.

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The now retired detective even sought legal clarity in writing - but never had his request fulfilled. The officer says he came under so much pressure to tap phones without having a court order that it took a toll on his health.

The State avoided the full extent of the phone tapping scandal being made public after agreeing an out-of-court settlement with the officer, who repeatedly raised concerns about the legality of the 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 gardaí and other plaintiffs within the space of a few hours on the same day last February.

An Garda Síochána has since said the procedures surrounding the tapping of mobile phone calls had been strengthened.

The Department of Justice insisted there were "very strong safeguards" to ensure the telecommunications interceptions system provided for by law was "operated properly".

Irish Independent

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