Simon O’Brien, the head of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc), suspects its headquarters have been placed under surveillance and he is looking internally for the spy.
“I certainly suspect, or potentially suspect, that we may have been under some form of surveillance,” he told a parliamentary committee.
The alleged surveillance was first disclosed in a report in the Sunday Times last weekend which Mr O’Brien described as having “an awful lot of provenance”.
The Garda watchdog chief said he believed the story was leaked from within his own organisation – possibly from an official internal report – and suggested the source could be responsible for the alleged spying on the oversight body.
“It could be that the person who leaked this (security) report is also responsible for other issues in our organisation,” he said.
Troubled relations between the Garda and its watchdog, which has resulted in very public spats in recent years, initially led to suspicions that elements within the force were behind the suspected targeting of the central Dublin offices of Gsoc.
Suspicion within the Gsoc headquarters was so rife, he said he would only talk about the security threat with the two other commissioners – Carmel Foley and Kieran Fitzgerald – in city centre cafes for fear of being spied upon.
“Because of the threats that were identified to us we completely disavowed ourselves of any use of mobile telephony in looking or talking or having any text data or data about this investigation,” he said.
“We disavowed ourselves of ever meeting round a normal meeting table either in my office or elsewhere.
“We ended up having to keep it so tight that we were meeting in cafes on Capel Street to discuss this because the security firms have told us very clearly of threats that can be made on mobile phones with quite low technology.”
Such is the controversy, Justice Minister Alan Shatter was forced to make a statement yesterday to the Dail (parliament) dismissing the suggestions as “completely baseless innuendo”.
Gsoc has also stressed that while their investigations have been inconclusive there is no evidence of any Garda misconduct.
Hauled before the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions today, Mr O’Brien said just seven members of the 85 staff watchdog - which includes two seconded Garda superintendents – had access to the leaked surveillance-scare report.
Mr O’Brien said he doesn’t know if the source of the leak is high level or low level within the organisation.
All staff have to sign an official secrets declaration and agree to ethics rules.
The suspected spying came to light after the watchdog flew in a private British counter-security company Verrinus last September to carry out a secret sweep on the offices.
Knowledge of the operation was restricted to about four or five staff in a “sensible” attempt to keep it confidential, said Mr O’Brien.
“At this time we were looking at potentially external risks to information flows being seized or captured, or we being surveilled from externally,” he said.
“But it is clearly the case here that we have a problem internally and I suspect that is a real issue.”
The claims centre on three issues which were identified with telecoms and technology in or around the Gsoc headquarters on Dublin’s Abbey Street.
First, a wi-fi device – described as a media console – in the boardroom was found to be connected to an external network.
Although it is not known how this happened, the device was not used by Gsoc and it could not connect to any of the watchdog’s internal systems or databases.
The device has been retained for evidence
The second issue revolved around concerns about the security of a telephone used for conference calls in Mr O’Brien’s office. Tests showed a suspicious signal coming back into the telephone when it was activated but the number could not be traced and there was no conclusive evidence of any wrongdoing.
There was no evidence of any calls being compromised.
A third issue related to the vulnerability of UK registered mobile phones in the area of the offices.
The technology – used only by government level security agencies – recreates a mobile network and picks up or locates phones registered to that network.
Once a phone has been connected it can be forced to disable call encryption and leave call data vulnerable to interception and recording.
Although he has held crisis meetings with both Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the justice minister earlier this week, Mr O’Brien said he did not challenge either on whether any surveillance was sanctioned or known about.
Nor has he asked the Defence Forces if they know of any involvement.
“Are we under surveillance now?” he told the parliamentary committee.
“I have no idea.”