GSOC chief says 'questions remain unanswered' over bugging claims

GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien

The head of the Garda Ombudsman has said questions remain unanswered over fears that his offices were bugged.

On the back of a Government-ordered report which found no evidence of a surveillance operation, Simon O’Brien, chairman of the watchdog, said one issue in its telecoms system remains outstanding and unexplained.

“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.”

The report by Judge John Cooke concluded that evidence does not support fears of a surveillance operation on the watchdog’s offices or that it was carried out by members of An Garda Siochana.

Mr O’Brien, a former senior Metropolitan Police officer, told RTÉ Radio that at all times he felt his office acted properly, proportionately and professionally over bugging fears after it launched a public interest inquiry into concerns of bugging.

The Justice Minister at the time, Alan Shatter, was not notified of the internal investigation late last year, prompting a near complete breakdown in relations between his office, the Garda Ombudsman and the force.

Mr O’Brien said there was no question of him resigning over the affair.

Another inquiry is continuing to find the source of a leak which led to the Sunday Times breaking the story in February over fears of government level surveillance capabilities being in place at the Garda Ombudsman's offices in Dublin.

Mr O’Brien said he had acted on what he felt were credible threats to the security of the Garda Ombudsman’s offices.

He said that even though a sweep by London-based counter-surveillance company Verrimus did not find evidence he felt he was right to call in experts.

“We still have an outstanding matter that is unexplained and on that basis we can’t say that we were not under surveillance at that time,” Mr O’Brien said.

The Garda Ombudsman earlier said the Cooke report supports its position that concerns were held in good faith.

The judge found: “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 said fears that a wireless device in the Garda Ombudsman offices were haphazardly transferring data to a nearby internet wifi hotspot in a cafe were not convincing. It did find, however, that the default wireless password had not been changed and was publicly available.

Secondly, a suspected fake 3G mobile network, which was feared to be government level surveillance for intercepting mobile phones – an IMSI catcher – was more likely to have been a test bed for a Vodafone 4G network near the GSOC offices on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin.

And thirdly, the report said a suspected eavesdrop or tap on a phone line in the GSOC offices could not be verified or dismissed as there is no trace of any surveillance.

Interim Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan last night said that the working relationship between the force and its watchdog needs to be more constructive.

“The relationship does continue to improve and An Garda Siochana is committed to building on that positive engagement with GSoc so as to ensure that there is an independent, objective and effective relationship between us, which is vital for maintaining public trust in policing,” she said.

Human rights groups the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said the Cooke report was “an exercise in smoke and mirrors”.

Director Mr Mark Kelly said: “The judge’s exclusive focus on whether or not GSOC’s levels of suspicion regarding surveillance were well-founded entirely side-steps the core question of whether or not any agency of the state sought or obtained permission to engage in surveillance of our independent police complaints authority.”

The ICCL said the inquiry was constrained and made preordained findings.

The group said the inquiry does not appear to have interviewed senior gardaí or sought records on the use of surveillance equipment by police or military intelligence services.

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 Gardaí has taken a hit, there’s no question, of course it has.”

Rank-and-file gardaí said the report has cleared the force of any suspicion of bugging its watchdog's headquarters.

But PJ Stone, secretary-general of the Garda Representative Association, which represents grassroots officers, said concerns remain about any risk to members from outside surveillance.

“It is now clear that the offices of GSOC were not bugged,” he said.

“We are satisfied that data was not compromised by a third party – though we note that the Cooke Report has recommended the tightening of security surrounding Gsoc.

“From the outset I did not believe there was any garda involvement in this, and the report has removed this suspicion. However, it highlights that any proposed increase in Gsoc’s powers should be counterbalanced with strong oversight.”

He added: “However, I remain concerned that in the whole debate, no-one has considered the implications for individual gardai; their security and personal safety would have been threatened by any external surveillance. That is extremely serious.”

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