Wednesday 18 September 2019

Michael Carty: 'Why value of building an effective system to avoid intelligence failures is immeasurable'

Threats: A man walks past a mural in tribute to murdered journalist Lyra McKee in Belfast. Photo: David Young/PA Wire
Threats: A man walks past a mural in tribute to murdered journalist Lyra McKee in Belfast. Photo: David Young/PA Wire

Michael Carty

The warnings from this week's Association of Garda Superintendents' conference, about an upsurge in cross-Border crime and security threats posed by Brexit and other international events, have a familiar ring.

Before this we had last month's suicide bombings in Sri Lanka and the ongoing terrorist attacks throughout Europe.

All fed into the endless stream of security analysts, commentators and experts identifying various reasons, despite a high level threat alert, why such attacks are happening.

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They also advanced numerous strategies the authorities should implement to prevent further outrages.

Of course, the murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee in Derry, the recent planting of a bomb at the courthouse in Derry and the ongoing ATM robbery spree both sides of the Border have also forced us to ask hard questions.

Chief among these is the capability of the PSNI and the Garda to cope given myriad threats.

The best way to address such concerns and key to combating terrorist activity is the establishment and operation of a well-resourced and effective intelligence system.

For without question it is apparent the majority of these crimes represent an intelligence failure. And the admission by the Garda authorities of being unaware of the disturbing paramilitary parade in O'Connell Street over Easter was a further illustration of an intelligence failure.

While the words "intelligence" and "police-led, intelligence-led operations" are a frequently used expression, perhaps for many people the concept brings to mind top-secret, covert operations. In reality "intelligence" is just another word for information. The purpose of gathering police intelligence is to identify individuals or groups of individuals who are suspected of planning or about to execute criminal acts and to formulate a plan to prevent their activities.

Good operational intelligence is essential for police to make the best use of human resources, otherwise the police will be reliant on saturation policing involving hit-and-miss encounters, which is effective in the short term but does not offer a long-term solution.

While specialist armed patrols will combat terrorist and gangland crime in the short run, it should be only one element in a strategic co-ordinated policing plan involving surveillance, use of technology including phone monitoring, use of CCTV and the most vital of all which is intelligence, often labelled the life blood of effective policing. But how is good policing intelligence obtained and developed?

The first step is the establishment of a well-resourced and trained intelligence unit specifically dealing with crime and terrorism. A highly successful unit dealing with subversive crime operates at the Special Detective Branch, as evidenced by the fact 94pc of cases awaiting trial in the Special Criminal Court are subversive-related cases. So the template is there.

There are a number of different methods in building up an effective intelligence system, but the two systems favoured by police forces are namely high-grade information obtained from a few select informers and undercover agents and a host of information gleaned from a large number of sources such as sightings, Garda surveillance assistance from members of the public, use of technology and other little bits of information. But it is rare that any information will be such that it will put a crime on a plate or enable gardaí to act immediately. It must be developed into contact information and this is the tricky part requiring expertise and skill. As an FBI colleague of mine used to remark "the cow can turn grass into milk, but it takes a further process to turn the milk into butter".

It has been found that many intelligence failures were due to the fact that someone somewhere had information but it was never passed on to the appropriate units. This was highlighted in Brussels by the fact Salah Abdeslam was able to remain on the run for over four months in and around Brussels despite reports of a number of tip-offs which were never acted on.

Therefore the analysing, co-ordinating and disseminating of intelligence is vital. For it to be effective, the intelligence operation consists of a number of constituent elements - planning, collection of the information, analysis and production of the intelligence, and finally the dissemination of the product. And all this operation should be conducted under the command of one single agency accountable to a police commissioner.

Of course, the measures outlined will require significant investment by the state. A professional intelligence system requires constant training and development, together with significant resources both human and technical. An intelligence service must be fit for purpose, otherwise it's too late when an outrage occurs. And the cost is immeasurable.

Our new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is only too aware of this. Given the resources, both human and technical, he without doubt has the expertise and ability to implement an effective plan.

Michael Carty is a retired chief superintendent in An Garda Síochána. A former head of the ERU, he was personal assistant to commissioner Pat Byrne and served overseas as a police Adviser in the UN

Irish Independent

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