Friday 24 November 2017

Watchdog implicates Garda in bugging claims

Brendan Howlin.
Brendan Howlin.
Simon O'Brien from the Office of the Garda Ombudsman arriving for a meeting with the Minister for Justice at the Department of Justice yesterday. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Simon O'Brien from the Office of the Garda Ombudsman arriving for a meeting with the Minister for Justice at the Department of Justice yesterday. Picture: Steve Humphreys

GARDA Commissioner Martin Callinan is to seek clarification from the Ombudsman Commission after a confusing statement from the watchdog appeared to implicate the Garda in the alleged bugging of its headquarters.

Mr Callinan said he was gravely concerned that the Ombudsman's statement contained a clear indication that An Garda Siochana was in some way suspected of complicity in the matter.

This was despite the Ombudsman's overall finding that the existence of technical and electronic anomalies could not be conclusively explained.

After remaining silent since the bugging allegations were published, the Ombudsman issued a statement last night which failed to explain whether its phones and emails had been compromised at any stage.

Speaking this morning, Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin said the Garda Ombudsman needs to clarify to the public in clear understandable language if its offices were bugged.

Mr Howlin said he was "concerned" about reports of bugging of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission and was "anxiously awaiting" a report from Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

"I don't know what exactly happened. I don't know what anomalies are. Has there been bugging?" he said on his way into the Cabinet meeting.

Mr Howlin said the public needed to know if there was a suspicion someone was about to bug or was in the process of bugging the offices.

"Was there bugging or was there not?"

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore says "spying is not acceptable".

Mr Gilmore was speaking in the wake of reports of bugging of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission.

The commission said yesterday an investigation by a British security consultancy firm had confirmed the existence of three "technical and electronic anomalies". But it did not say what those anomalies were and acknowledged they could not be conclusively explained.

The commission said the anomalies had raised concerns about the integrity of its communications security but it was now satisfied that its databases had not been compromised.

Commission chairman Simon O'Brien, who held a two-hour meeting with Justice Minister Alan Shatter and later apologised for failing to inform him about the investigation, said later that three credible threats had existed.

The statement also said: "There was no evidence of garda misconduct."

This resulted in a prompt response from Mr Callinan, who called on the Ombudsman to explain the basis for suspecting that members of the force could be involved.

He also wanted to receive an explanation of the nature and extent of the "anomalies"; the current view of the Ombudsman as to who might be responsible for the "anomalies" if it was now satisfied the gardai were not involved; and whether it intended to call in the gardai to carry out inquiries if the Ombudsman believed there had been a breach of its security, or a criminal offence had been committed.

Mr Callinan also asked the Ombudsman to state whether any matters identified now required investigation by An Garda Siochana.

The Ombudsman Commission is to appear before the Oireachtas public services oversight committee tomorrow afternoon after it was contacted by committee chairman and Sinn Fein TD Padraig Mac Lochlainn, who had called for a report on its claims.

The commission is expected to come under pressure to explain whether the "anomalies" represented a genuine bugging attempt or were simply interference with internal communications from wi-fi services in a nearby building.

Following the weekend leak of details of the debugging investigation by the British firm, Verrimus, the commission said that in the course of its operations, the commission had always been conscious of the need for appropriate confidentiality and proper levels of security and had brought this to the attention of staff from time to time.

On two occasions, since it began, security experts had been consulted and a sweep of the building undertaken.

One of those sweeps was carried out on the evenings of September 23 to 27 last year by Verrimus, at a cost of almost €18,000.

This investigation ended on December 17. The commission then decided to discontinue the investigation on the basis that no further action was necessary or reasonably practicable.

Given the outcome of the investigation, the Ombudsman said it recognised the need to reinforce the security of its telecommunications systems in the light of the specialists' advice.

"We took the difficult decision not to report this matter to other parties," the statement added.

"We did not wish to point fingers unnecessarily and we did not believe that widespread reporting would be conducive to public confidence."

The Ombudsman said it took the decision not to report its suspicions to the gardai or Mr Shatter.

"We regret that now and this was communicated to the minister by commission chairman Simon O'Brien this afternoon".

After the talks with Mr Shatter, Mr O'Brien told reporters that the meeting had been "very fruitful".


Earlier, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in Athlone he was concerned that the fears and subsequent investigation had not been reported to Mr Shatter, as required by law.

He pointed out that section 80, subsection 5 of the Garda Siochana Act, 2005, required the Ombudsman to report unusual matters of exceptional importance to the Minister for Justice and that was a fundamental issue that it needed to explain to the minister.

He said it was very important that the details of what had transpired at the Ombudsman's headquarters be made available to the minister "for public analysis" and enable Mr Shatter to make a full report to the Cabinet today.

Asked if it might be a resignation issue for anybody within the Ombudsman Commission, Mr Kenny said: "I always like to see facts, before making any further comment."

Fianna Fail's justice spokesman, Niall Collins, called on Mr Shatter to move quickly to establish who was responsible for the alleged surveillance.

Tom Brady

Irish Independent

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