Wednesday 21 February 2018

Hunt for mole who breached security at garda watchdog

Lawyer brought in to find source of damaging leaks

Alan Shatter
Alan Shatter

Tom Brady and Fionnan Sheahan

The embattled Garda Ombudsman has hired a senior barrister to find out who leaked details of a report into the suspected bugging of its headquarters.

A maximum of seven people within the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) had access to the report prepared by British security firm Verrimus which allegedly formed the basis for the bugging leak.

The Garda watchdog is under pressure to identify the source of the information that sparked a chain of events which contributed to the resignation of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter and former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Despite the small number of people who had access to the information, GSOC has been unable to find the source of the leak for the past four months.

An internal inquiry was set up back in February by GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien. But it emerged yesterday that a senior barrister had been hired to lead the hunt.

The leak resulted in an article in the ‘Sunday Times’, which retired High Court judge John Cooke has now found was “seriously inaccurate” – but contained information which was evidence of a serious breach of security at the Ombudsman's office.

The Irish Independent disclosed last February that a senior official at GSOC was the prime suspect for information leaks from the body, while it was believed that a more junior member of the staff could have been involved in some of the disclosures.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has expressed confidence in GSOC and its management.

But the minister has also said she wants to hear a more thorough response from GSOC to the report.

Mr O'Brien has denied his position is untenable and said he would not resign over the investigation into the alleged bugging at his office, despite not informing the then Justice Minister of the inquiry, as GSOC was obliged to do under the law.

He also insisted there were still “question marks” over surveillance of GSOC's offices.

Within Government circles, there is a view that GSOC will have to show it has learned lessons from the affair and review how it operates.

“GSOC need to ask themselves some questions about the findings of the report,” a source said.

The search for the mole is also being watched carefully within the Coalition, especially as Mr O'Brien has committed to finding the source and said just seven people had access to the information.

“We are aware GSOC has hired a senior counsel. We look forward to that outcome. He has put himself on the spot,” a source said.

Mr Shatter last night welcomed the findings of the Cooke Report.

The Fine Gael TD, who resigned in May after months of garda controversies, said the report backed up statements he made to the Dail.

He said he dealt with the allegations raised by the ‘Sunday Times’ in a “straightforward, truthful and comprehensive way”.

He also highlighted Mr Cooke's finding that GSOC was statutorily obliged to inform him of the security sweep when it took place last year.

The original newspaper report suggested a device, known as an IMSI catcher, had been used in the surveillance and that it was available only to government-level agencies.

This inferred that the gardai were the prime suspects for the surveillance.

Frequent leaks from within GSOC have been a crucial factor in ratcheting up the tension between it and the gardai over the past couple of years.

But that tension reached boiling point when the article was published.

It also sparked off a chain of events that plunged the garda force into crisis, and ultimately played a significant role in the retirement of Mr Callinan and resignation of Mr Shatter.

Mr Justice Cooke found there was no evidence of surveillance of GSOC by the gardai, or anybody else.


Mr O'Brien has told an Oireachtas oversight committee meeting that a maximum of seven people within his organisation had access to the report prepared by British security firm, Verrimus, which allegedly formed the basis for the bugging leak and he confirmed that he was conducting an internal inquiry.

A GSOC spokeswoman said last night that the four-month old inquiry was continuing, and the senior lawyer was expected to report back to the organisation in a matter of weeks.

In the meantime, a question mark hangs over the future of the senior members of GSOC in view of Mr Justice Cooke's findings.

Despite its inaccuracy, the judge said the newspaper article was evidence of a serious breach of security of the Ombudsman's confidential information – because it appeared to be sourced from data that was known only to those who were privy to the conduct and outcome of the investigation.

He pointed out that the investigation of the breach was unrelated to the supposed surveillance threats and were, therefore, outside the remit of his terms of reference.

Mr Justice Cooke also noted that the breach was not a suitable event for an ad hoc inquiry, with no powers to compel the provision of information and no authority to determine issues of fact or resolve disputes as to truth and credibility.

He found that the ‘Sunday Times' article last February contained misinformation in relation to the investigation and its outcome.

He determined that GSOC's “wi-fi network” had not been compromised to “steal emails, data and confidential reports” and that the security sweep examination of a “wi-fi network” was confined to the wireless devices of the audio-visual equipment and unconnected to any data storage.

The judge also dismissed further ‘Sunday Times’ claims and said there was no “second wi-fi system” created using an “IP address in Britain” and no ”government owned technology” had been used to “hack into emails”.

The latter claim was a reference to the use of an IMSI catcher, which the newspaper claimed was available only to government level agencies.

This was dismissed by the judge, who also pointed out that IMSI catchers could be bought cheaply on the open market.

This newspaper also revealed in February that representatives of Verrimus had demonstrated an IMSI catcher and other surveillance equipment to gardai in the Phoenix Park  when they were in Dublin, carrying out the GSOC surveillance investigation last September.

Previous leaks from GSOC dealt with investigations carried out by the Ombudsman into the garda handling of a drugs informant Kieran Boylan and other sensitive cases.

Despite the findings, Mr Shatter's successor Ms Fitzgerald expressed confidence in the GSOC board.

Mr O'Brien said yesterday that question marks remained over the bugging allegations and he believed his office had acted properly, professionally and proportionately after it launched a public interest inquiry into concerns of bugging.

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