GSOC the big loser as gardaí escape scrutiny

GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien

John Cooke’s lack of curiosity has hindered the bugging report, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

NOTHING to see here, folks. Move along now, please. So goes the general reaction to the publication of the Cooke report. The inquiry, headed up by John Cooke, a retired judge, came to the conclusion that there was no definitive evidence that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission offices had been bugged.

Among the Government, gardaí, and elements of the media, the report is presented as proof that there was no surveillance of GSOC, and certainly not by an element of An Garda Síochána. In reality, Cooke has raised further suspicions that GSOC was actually under some form of surveillance.

First of all, the known knowns. The alleged bugging was related to three security threats identified by the UK firm Verrimus, which had been retained by GSOC last September to conduct a sweep. Cooke’s report deals in a satisfactory manner with two of these threats. The threat of a wifi device, suspected of transmitting data to an eternal device in a surveillance operation, was discounted as “not convincing”.

Another suspected threat, through an alleged UK 3G mobile-phone network, was “highly likely” to be attributable to testing by a mobile provider, Cooke found.

In both of these instances, GSOC and Verrimus are open to criticism for failing to thoroughly investigate before categorising “threats”.

The third threat is not so simple. This involved the “call back” from a phone on the GSOC premises, when it was being tested by Verrimus personnel.

The phone rang back during the operation in the early hours of the morning. The security firm suggested this indicated the presence of somebody monitoring the line.

Verrimus had reported to GSOC that the chances of the call being attributable to anything other than an eavesdropper was “close to nil”. Cooke couldn’t find an alternative explanation, but did suggest that the idea it was attributable to “human error” on the part of an eavesdropper was “at variance with the premise that GSOC was being subjected to a sophisticated surveillance attack which was characterised as at intelligence level”. In other words, a brainy surveillance expert wouldn’t make a mistake, not even in the early hours of the morning.

Cooke did find that there was no evidence to suggest any such alleged surveillance could have been “carried out by members of the Garda Síochána”. That does not discount the possibility — some might say probability — that the call back indicated that somebody was monitoring the phoneline.

On Morning Ireland yesterday, GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien noted that “we still have an outstanding matter that can’t be explained”. He’s right there. By any stretch, Cooke’s probe into the alleged threat to the phone line was inconclusive.

Apart from that, we have the known unknowns. The terms of reference for Cooke were extremely narrow. There was no provision to properly examine the context in which GSOC might have come to the conclusion that it was under surveillance.

Neither was there anything about examining other possible methods through which the ombudsman’s office could have been under surveillance.

In the report, Cooke touches on one other possible surveillance method. He interviewed officers in GSOC who related to him that they believed calls on their mobile phones were being monitored during a high-profile investigation in 2013. The investigation in question was that of the drug dealer/infomer Kieran Boylan. That particular probe was the source of the greatest distrust and suspicion to arise between GSOC and the gardaí.

The GSOC investigators told Cooke that while they were compiling their final report on the matter, they began to suspect their mobile phones were being interfered with.

“They found that the mobile phones which they used constantly in their contacts with Crime and Security Branch of the Garda Síochána began to run down very quickly,” Cooke reported.

“Although fully charged overnight and normally good for heavy use over 24 hours, they would be depleted within two hours or less without there being any change in use. They considered this to be possible evidence that their mobile phones had been interfered with.”

Their fear was related to “ambient listening”. This involves the use of equipment which allows for listening into another phone “where conversations on and in the vicinity of the telephone receiver can be overheard and recorded without the knowledge of the owner and without leaving any trace”, according to Cooke. One effect of doing this is that it can cause an unusually rapid depletion of the battery on the targeted phone. By any stretch, that sounds like bugging.

Yet Cooke did nothing to further probe these claims. He didn’t interview anybody in An Garda Síochána. The matter is just left hanging there in the report, even though it raises the possibility that GSOC was under threat from a source other than the three identified by Verrimus.

Elsewhere in the report, Cooke refers to alleged physical surveillance, including “the white van and the two men who turned away; the men observing the Verrimus operatives from the street; the man with the heavy sports bag in the coffee shop; and the photographer at the airport”.

In all these cases, Cooke concluded that if any surveillance was taking place, then “it seems highly likely that such surveillance (if that is what it was) was directed at the activities of Verrimus operatives rather than at GSOC personnel”.

The tenuous basis for this conclusion is that Verrimus had visited the security branch of An Garda Síochána earlier in September, and the cops might have been curious as to what other clients Verrimus had.

Security comes under the “Crime and Security” branch in the force, the same branch at the centre of the GSOC investigation into Kieran Boylan. Cooke makes no such connection. The judge’s lack of curiosity in finding out why anybody connected with GSOC was under suspected surveillance screams out from the pages of the report. He was restricted by the terms of reference, but appears to have had little interest in examining anything but the three obvious “threats” that had been identified.

If Cooke was really curious, he could have had a chat with Luke Ming Flanagan, or garda whistleblower John Wilson. On April 30, Flanagan told the Dáil that he, Wilson, and a serving garda who was approaching GSOC, had been under surveillance from an unmarked patrol car while in the vicinity of the GSOC offices.

The serving garda was on his way to make a complaint to the ombudsman.

Despite the spin, Cooke is far from conclusive. The two men who occupied the offices of Minister for Justice and Garda commissioner at the time the controversy blew up have both vacated office. There is no appetite for further investigation.

The ultimate fallout from both the report and the spin is that GSOC has been weakened in the ongoing power struggle that exists between it and An Garda Síochána. With all that we now know, that is deeply worrying.

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