Surveillance in the spotlight

HALF joking, half serious, one experienced detective tackling a violent gang war in south Dublin described them as the "black ops" of the force.

Now the little-known Garda National Surveillance Unit (NSU) is being placed under a spotlight it may not be used to, or comfortable with.

The unit was formed in the mid-90s out of two separate units, the Crime Special Surveillance Unit and the Crime Ordinary Surveillance Unit, dealing with subversive and serious crime respectively.

They were merged into the NSU, which is located at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. It operates out of the Security and Intelligence section, under the control of Detective Superintendent Kevin Lynch and the overall command of Det Chief Supt Tim Maher.

At the launch of the Surveillance Bill last Friday, Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy and Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the force had been carrying out for surveillance for a long time and has successfully used it to prevent murders as well as intercept terrorist-related activity and drug shipments.

But while the activity was not illegal, there was no legal basis for surveillance either. It proved very useful from an intelligence point of view for gardaí, the decision had been made by the force not to use it in the courts because of legal problems regarding its admissibility as evidence and Garda reluctance to reveal what they knew and how they knew it.

Mr Ahern said this had now changed. "Gardaí now believe there are circumstances where they have to bring this out into evidence," he said.

The minister said he expected the use of surveillance to increase once the bill was enacted.

"Obviously, because they didn’t have statutory grounding for it, they were obviously extremely reluctant to use it as often as they would like because of the personal intrusion and private property or whatever. Once they get judicial authorisation and behave in accordance with that, they can use it more frequently."

Commissioner Murphy said the existence of the NSU was known. "My people in the NSU are highly trained. Day in, day out, people in the NSU are engaged in this activity right now, using up-to-date equipment and being very proactive."

The Garda chief said he had increased the size of the unit recently but declined to give numbers.

The Irish Examiner understands there are 90 gardaí attached to the unit. It is understood a number of new young gardaí have been recruited recently. Garda sources said they expected the size of the unit to increase further but not by a huge amount.

"We will see what happens. When the act goes in, it will strengthen more," said one source. "It if is successful we may focus more manpower to it and say less on the actual physical surveillance, driving around in cars."

But he cautioned against any belief the NSU was going to start bugging all criminals: "If people think all gang members in Limerick are going to be broken into and their homes bugged, that physically can’t happen."

He said many homes of criminals were like "fortresses", with CCTV cameras, alarms, gates, dogs and even "booby traps" and are often in areas where strangers stand out.

Commissioner Murphy declined to comment on resource implications for the NSU.

Given the nature of its work, it is likely to be a heavy user of overtime. With the total Garda overtime budget slashed this year, this could restrict any significant expansion of surveillance.

Such is the secrecy of the NSU, local gardaí may not even know the unit is active in their area.

Some districts in the regions, such as Limerick, have small surveillance units run by so-called Garda "techies" who have a knowledge of telecommunications. They work in conjunction with the NSU in situations when the national unit is sent down to them.

It’s not quite clear how the new system will work. Sources said the Garda unit or district requesting the surveillance will have to have their request assessed by senior management, possibly by Crime and Security.

"Resources will be an issue. It will be a matter of priorities as to what gets the go-ahead. Also, if we are going to do something there has to be a reasonable chance of success," said one senior source.

Commissioner Murphy said the new powers would be of great help in preventing crimes such as murders.

Some drug officers said the ability to use surveillance evidence in the courts will also help to catch the top drug bosses, who rarely actually touch drugs.

Sources said the offence of conspiracy to import drugs was rarely used, but that surveillance evidence could secure such charges against drugbosses if they are recorded organising shipments.

Overall, one seasoned officer is realistic about the new powers: "Criminals understand that everywhere they go they could be under surveillance. It will never stop them. The US has the biggest police budget, the most extensive surveillance and, yet, has the biggest crime problem.

"But, at least, surveillance will make it more difficult for them."