GSOC must clarify issues to restore credibility

We are still none the wiser as to what level of security breach GSOC suffered, if at all, says Cormac O’Keeffe

There's a fight on. One of the biggest fights over national security for some time.

In the red corner, we have the Garda Síochána, led by Commissioner Callinan; the Minister for Justice; the Taoiseach and the Cabinet; as well as the massed ranks of the garda representative organisations.

In the blue corner, we have the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The watchdog is fighting for its reputation, its credibility and its independence.

The three heads of the commission will line up before the Oireachtas Public Services Oversight Committee later today. They need a good, clean fight if they are to survive. Here’s some of the reasons why.

What Happened?

Was GSOC bugged or not? What evidence is there to show it happened?

The Sunday Times reported claims of a sophisticated surveillance operation which had hacked into GSOC’s emails, wi-fi and phone systems. This was done using “government-level technologies” — the clear inference being a State agency. At 6.30pm on Monday, GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien said a specialist security firm discovered three “threats” to its communication systems.

Oddly, a parallel statement from GSOC did not mention the word threat and, instead, vaguely referred to “three technical and electronic anomalies”.

Neither the statement nor Mr O’Brien said whether or not this constituted actual/attempted bugging or actual/attempted hacking or anything else.

The statement said the anomalies “could not be conclusively explained” but that it raised “concerns among the investigation team in terms of the integrity of GSOC’s communications strategy”.

It said it was “satisfied that its databases were not compromised”. What this means is unclear. It does not explain whether or not the conference room speakerphone was listened into or not, as claimed on Sunday.

More broadly, we do not know what sensitive information, if any, was listened in on or accessed; what investigations were involved; and whether the safety or security of individuals — from complainants, to witnesses to gardaí — was comprised.

The Irish Examiner has spoken to a range of sources. There does seem to be some uncertainty as to what exactly was discovered by the British security firm. Some sources have even gone so far as to say that nothing was found, while others insist that something was found, but not enough to warrant further investigation or to bring to the attention of the public, the gardaí, the government or the Oireachtas. This is a key issue that must be clarified.

In the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s briefing to the Cabinet, based on the meeting with Mr O’Brien, found that there was “no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of their offices”.

Mr Kenny said: “Was the office bugged? In the words of GSOC, they found no evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of their office.”

Later Mr Shatter repeated this and said: “Moreover, they have informed me that their databases have not been compromised. In other words, it has not been established that the offices of the Ombudsman Commission were subject to surveillance. Some public comment has proceeded on the basis that it is an established fact that the offices of the Commission were bugged when clearly it is not.”

GSOC will give their version of events today.

Gardaí as Suspects

This is the most sensitive — and sensational — aspect of the claims. It is not clear what sparked the security sweep of GSOC offices.

Mr O’Brien said the decision to bring in British security specialists to conduct a bug swoop was based on “general information” and that there were no “specific issues” at that stage.

The Irish Examiner understands that there were concerns within GSOC of sensitive information being known by people and agencies outside the body.

When the security threats were detected, how did the gardaí come under suspicion? On what grounds?

Mr O’Brien and the GSOC statement said following an investigation “no evidence of Garda misconduct” was found. But this infers a suspicion of Garda misconduct and that this suspicion was investigated.

This is what has angered Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, who said the statement indicated the gardaí were “suspected of complicity”. He demanded to know the basis of this suspicion.

Was there an actual basis for the suspicion? Or is it simply because they are the obvious suspects, given the role of the watchdog. Adding fuel to this suspicion was the fact GSOC did not report suspected criminality to the authority that investigates crime.

Mr Shatter said yesterday: “I understand that no connection between any member of An Garda Síochána with any of these matters arose. This is not my conclusion. It is that of GSOC.

“It is unfortunate that An Garda Síochána have found themselves, during the last 48 hours, the subject of what appears to be completely baseless innuendo.”

The Oireachtas committee is bound to probe GSOC bosses further on this today. But it is unclear how GSOC will respond, without risking escalating the conflict with gardaí even further.

GSOC independence

A disturbing aspect of this saga has been the stance taken by several Cabinet ministers — led by the Taoiseach — towards GSOC’s independence.

There was talk of GSOC “coming clean”, “being grilled” and “levelling with” Alan Shatter — a bizarre approach that could reasonably be compared to blaming the victim; effectively turning the victim into the villain.

Some ministers expressed the view the watchdog was obliged to inform the minister. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said GSOC was “required” under the law to do so. But the law merely says the commission “may” report. It is at the discretion of GSOC. The watchdog either has discretion or not.

It is equally bizarre that Mr O’Brien effectively apologised when he said they “regretted” their decision.

Informed observers were surprised by this, saying it had weakened the independence of the body. While there are arguments that GSOC should have informed the minister, there may also be reasons to explain why they decided against it. But legally, they did not have to do so.

GSOC is independent, subject to the Garda Síochána Act 2005. There are requirements to report to the minister on certain matters, including the publication of annual and subsequent reports. Elsewhere, Section 67 states: “Subject to this Act, the Ombudsman Commission shall be independent in the performance of its functions.”

Ringside at the committee today we will have a better idea if GSOC is still standing or on the ropes.

More on this topic

Report fails to establish responsibility for GSOC leakReport fails to establish responsibility for GSOC leak

GSOC chief says 'questions remain unanswered' over bugging claimsGSOC chief says 'questions remain unanswered' over bugging claims

Justice Minister 'still has confidence' in GSOCJustice Minister 'still has confidence' in GSOC

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