29 Jan 2011

Spy vs. Spy

We are always playing politics in TT except when we are playing politics and that´s why the spy issue has left the PP out in the cold.

I never trusted or understood the events of a few months ago and I have been waiting for enlightenment ever since. An unnecessary commotion was created over Mr Manning´s clandestine network, the PP expressing outrage when they knew that wire taps have been around before Watergate and are a risk of political life. I said as much in this very space. I didn't mention at the time my reservations about the way a matter of such supposed weight was brought to the public´s attention: via press leaks. Government’s statement to Parliament came only after the pot of sensation had been well stirred. What was up?

Of more concern: the legislation dubbed the Spy Bill had been laid in Parliament immediately after the leaks. To me, the haste indicated that the bill had been drafted before the story was issued or discussed. Why the roundabout manner of presenting a crucial legislative proposal? Why had sober discourse and appropriate deliberation been replaced by a quick campaign? The entire affair looked like UNC politics of distraction: the story had broken just as TT was about to borrow money.

I was equally dismayed when the PNM MPs lent their support to the Interception of Communications Bill or Act no 11 of 2010, but I was not surprised: it was typical politics. Our representatives had acted in their self-interest. Their conversations were being taped and they wished to put a stop to it.

The Spy Bill did not go far enough: it did not legislate for the SIA nor did it place the SSA under further and much needed parliamentary supervision. It was a bill which established the legal procedures and limits for wiretapping, but which ignored the key question of the accountability of the spy agencies and the need for parliamentary oversight of these and their directors. Why was our Spy Bill so superficial in its underpinnings, so wanting of a philosophical raison d´etre, so lacking in political objective? Did all our regimes wish their spies unaccountable? I am certain that little by little the answers will come in from the cold much as the Reshmi Ramnarine appointment has been outed.

I return to my opening statement about politics in TT. We won´t hear the PM or the Leader of the Opposition say it, but logic dictates that the director of a spy agency is a political appointee. He or she must enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister. CIA bosses are always nominated by the President. However their appointment must be ratified by the Senate. In other words, both the director of the CIA and the agency are accepted tools of the executive but the legislative branch monitors their employment and restrains rogue tendencies in spy and administration alike. The current CIA head Leon Panetta, when appointed by Obama, was criticised by senior Democrats as a chief “without a deep reservoir of intelligence or counterterrorism experience.” His selection was thoroughly aired before its final approval by the Senate. In TT, the PP and the PNM want to play hide and seek politics with SIA and SSA directors.

The circumstances surrounding the case of Ramnarine remind me of former UNC Minister of Agriculture Reeza Mohammed and his misleading Parliament over the employment of a woman exposed by the PNM as not the top candidate for an IADB post. Back then Dr Keith Rowley led the charge of the moral brigade. Moral indignation is his modus operandi: it is the true and tried PNM path to re-election. He and his party recognise that TT is more tolerant of PNM nepotism than of any other and that the PNM can depend on the loyalty of the civil servants. The PNM can give away the Treasury to its mother, father, tantie, award contracts to the least suitable, appoint spy bosses with or without papers and the public service will turn a blind eye; the PP cannot blink without bacchanal. Whether this is fair or not, the Government must accept the facts of life.

Do not misunderstand or misquote me. I feel no empathy for the PP. This Ramnarine mess is their doing. Months ago, they should have encouraged deeper debate. The PP should have openly recognised that the spy directors are politically affiliated to party as the CIA bosses are in the US, and then placed these under the jurisdiction of the Parliament, which would have ensured candidates for top posts were properly qualified. But they too, used the spy matter to come off as ethically superior and to distract. So now it is payback and leak for leak, spy vs spy, when reasonable, logical discourse should rule the day and when we are no nearer a resolution of the important issue of deciding what we are looking for precisely in a director of the SSA or the SIA. That´s why I tell you that we are always playing politics except when we should be playing politics.

From Newsday