Saturday 17 March 2018

GSOC chairman: Question marks still remain on possible surveillance

GSOC wrong not to tell Justice Department of surveillance inquiry

Simon O'Brien says one issue in the Garda Ombudsman telecoms system remains unexplained
Simon O'Brien says one issue in the Garda Ombudsman telecoms system remains unexplained
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald: report will be food for thought for those who took part in 'heated discussion' on the controversy while Alan Shatter was still Minister. Picture: Arthur Carron

Fionnan Sheahan, Tom Brady and Niall O'Connor

THE Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission Chairman Simon O'Brien has insisted question marks remain over allegations of bugging at its offices in Dublin.

His insistence comes despite the publication of a report by Judge John Cooke that found that the watchdog's office was never bugged, and there was no basis for claims the gardai had put the watchdog under surveillance.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr O'Brien said GSOC had been careful not to point the finger at gardaí.

But Mr O'Brien said "question marks still remain" as to whether surveillance of GSOC Headquarters took place.

"There is still an outstanding anomaly and in the words of the judge, as he says in these rather febrile areas, it's difficult to know whether that could be in relation to unlawful intrusion," he said.

"So, question marks still remain."

A detailed investigation into the allegations that contributed to the resignations of the former Justice Minister Alan Shatter and the Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has refuted suggestions the gardai were involved in any surveillance.

The Cooke Report carried out by a retired judge was set up amid widespread suggestions the gardai were undermining the role of the GSOC.

The report by former High Court judge John Cooke into the alleged surveillance also says GSOC should have notified former Justice Minister Alan Shatter of its special investigation into the allegations.

But the report is critical of the poor working relationship between the gardai and GSOC.

Signalling her backing for Mr O'Brien, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald declared her confidence in Gsoc and those who run it.

"Yes, I have confidence in the individuals running Gsoc but there are lessons to be learned, work to be done, there's bridge-building and cultural change (needed) on both sides in my opinion," she said.

Ms Fitzgerald added: "I believe Gsoc should reflect on the report, I have said I will be asking them for their response to the report and I look forward to their detailed response because there is food for thought in this report."

Ms Fitzgerald said she accepted that the watchdog acted on good faith when faced with what it deemed to be a credible threat to its security.

"I accept that is the perception, I accept that was Gsoc's understanding," she said.

"Having said that, undoubtedly trust between Gsoc and the Gardai has taken a hit, there's no question, of course it has."

The Cooke Report says there is no evidence to back up the claim there was surveillance of GSOC – or that it was carried out by gardai.

"It is clear that the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance of the kind asserted in the 'Sunday Times' article took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Siochana," the report says.

The report rejects the notion the three threats identified by GSOC were attributable to surveillance.

The judge found it was "not convincing" that a wireless AV remote control device for audio and video equipment in the GSOC office was transferring data to an external "Bitbuzz" hotspot in a nearby cafe. He said the alleged use of an IMSI catcher device – equipment used to track and intercept mobile phones – was "highly likely" to have been a mobile provider's testing of a new 4G installation close to GSOC headquarters in September/ October.

On the third alleged threat involving a ring-back on a teleconferencing device, he said it was not explained but there was no evidence to suggest this was due to an offence or misbehaviour on the part of a garda.

It is this anomaly that Mr O'Brien was referring to when he said questions remain.

The allegation of bugging was among the garda scandals that resulted in the resignation of Mr Callinan and Mr Shatter.

The Justice Minister said the allegation of bugging caused deep concern within Government and that the claims of surveillance warranted an independent investigation.

The allegation was first published in the 'Sunday Times'.

But Ms Fitzgerald said she accepted the findings of the Cooke Report. "This report says there is no evidence of surveillance taking place, much less that it was being carried out by the Garda Siochana," she said.

The minister emphasised GSOC officials "acted in good faith", according to the report, and that there are no finding of facts against the Commission.

Asked if she has full confidence in the GSOC board, Ms Fitzgerald said: "I do have confidence in the board at GSOC. GSOC are an important body."

Mr O'Brien has insisted that his position is not untenable.

Mr Cooke also says GSOC should have notified the Minister for Justice of its special investigation into the allegations.

"Having commenced, conducted and then closed an investigation in the public interest pursuant to section 102(4) of the Act, there was an obligation upon the Commission to furnish information in relation to its results to both the minister and the Commissioner," it says.

Last night, Acting Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan said: "Judge Cooke's comprehensive report is being reviewed by myself and my senior management team. Following this review, our response will be provided to the Minister for Justice. An Garda Siochana acknowledges Judge Cooke's finding that 'the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance . . . took place and much less that it was carried out by members of An Garda Siochana'.

"An Garda Siochana acknowledges that the working relationship between An Garda Siochana and GSOC needs to be more constructive. The relationship continues to improve and An Garda Siochana is committed to building on that positive engagement with GSOC."


The Cooke Report was published by the Government after being discussed by ministers. It is particularly critical of the leak of information about the Ombudsman's bugging investigation to the 'Sunday Times'.

The report said the information "revealed" in the 'Sunday Times' article on February 9 was evidence of a serious breach of security of the Ombudsman's confidential information because, although seriously inaccurate, it appeared to have its source in information known only to those who were privy to the conduct of the investigation.

The judge said the breach was outside his terms of reference but he had been told it was the subject of an internal inquiry by the Ombudsman.

He noted that the article contained misinformation in relation to the investigation and its outcome. GSOC's wifi network was not compromised to "steal emails, data and confidential reports", he pointed out.

The sweep of the "wifi network" was confined to the wireless devices of the audio visual equipment and unconnected to any data storage and there had been no "second wifi system", which had been created using an IP address in Britain.

Mr Justice Cooke also made it clear that no "government-owned technology" had been used to hack into emails.

It was claimed that a highly sophisticated device, known as an IMSI catcher, had been used in the bugging of the offices and that an IMSI catcher could only be purchased at government level, inferring that a body like the gardai might have been involved. But the judge ruled this out and suggested equipment available on the open market for €5,500 could be used.

Last night, a spokeswoman for GSOC said they had downloaded the report. "We are reading it and will make a statement as soon as possible, once we have read it fully," she said.

Irish Independent

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