11 Nov 2010

Spies like us

An early-morning police raid, ordered by Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs, on a secret snooping agency within the National Security Ministry has brought to light an extensive list, including Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and private citizens, whose phone calls, text messages and e-mails have been monitored over five years.

Special Branch and Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau officers, who locked down the St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, offices of the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) at 6 a.m. on October 23, also found $5.9 million in a fireproof safe and a stash of firearms.

In a shock response to the discovery of an elaborately equipped and well-funded "intercept suite" within the SIA, the People's Partnership administration, as disclosed in Government documents made available for viewing yesterday, has:

  • fired Nigel Clement, director of both the Strategic Services Agency and the SIA
  • retained two Canadian technology security experts to sweep for further evidence of the tapping of phone, text and e-mail messages, and to develop a secure communications network for use by the Prime Minister and top officials
  • begun a review and reorganisation of State security apparatus to discover exactly which agencies are doing what and to clarify their lines of reporting
  • drafted for tabling in Parliament tomorrow a bill to outlaw interception of private communication, unless authorised by the order of a High Court judge.

The National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, though weekly briefed by National Security Ministry agencies, had been, until two weeks ago, kept in the dark about the existence and the activities of the SIA "intercept suite".

Documents detailing investigators' findings listed dates and times and brief reasons for interception of the electronic communications people targeted under a variety of titled "operations". The targets include politicians of all parties, independent senators, trade unionists, High Court and Appeal Court judges, county councillors, business people, academics, media people, lawyers in private practice and popular comedians.

What remains unknown to officials is who received the information gathered from such sources and what use was made of it. [The Newsday has it that a high ranking PNM official remains the person that the Unit reports to. “The source alleged that the spy unit was set up by a former high-ranking official of the former PNM government, to which the unit continued to report to even after the change in regime. “He was tapping his own people,” said the source. “]

But they say the SIA, with some 200 staff, has operated out of various safe houses, and ran private companies as fronts for its channelling of millions of dollars of cash to people described as "informants".

The discovery of deep-secret telecommunications snooping by SIA heightened curiosity about which other agencies have been tapping into private talk and electronic chat.

Immediately before the firing of Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) director Brig Peter Joseph, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar had charged SAUTT had tapped her own phones and that of others.

Hard evidence of this has not come from sweeps of SAUTT systems, however. In one document reviewed yesterday, a SAUTT technical manager last September called on all staff to remove from the system all compromising material at this critical time while SAUTT is under scrutiny.

It was in response to the 1990 security failings connected with the coup attempt that the SSA had been enacted by Parliament in 1995. Under the SSA Act, President Max Richards yesterday signed the order revoking the appointment of Clement.

On April 1, the Patrick Manning Cabinet had appointed Clement, a former Coast Guard officer, the director of both the SSA and the lesser-known SIA. Government documents showed a July 2009 Cabinet decision to amalgamate the SSA, the SIA and the Police Special Branch into a single unit.

This decision had apparently not been implemented by last month when the Special Branch, with the ACIB, busted the SIA and proceeded up a wider investigation involving telecommunications intercepts, millions of unaccounted cash dollars, and unregistered firearms.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is expected to address the issue in Parliament tomorrow.

An early morning report from the Express