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Oireachtas committee has “grave concerns” about issues raised by GSOC

GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien and other members of the Ombudsman faced questions from TDs and Senators over a report in the Sunday Times that the agency’s communications systems were bugged.

Simon O'Brien of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission
Simon O'Brien of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission
Image: Oireachtas screengrab

Updated 9.50pm

MEMBERS OF THE Garda Ombudsman Commission appeared before the Oireachtas Petitions and Public Service Oversight Committee today to discuss claims of unlawful surveillance on its offices in Dublin.

Following the meeting, the Chairman of the committee Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD said that the members have “grave concerns about some of the issues raised during the detailed discussions with the Garda Ombudsman Commissioners”.

“Serious questions remain unanswered,” he confirmed.

The Committee have decided:

  • To contact the GSOC requesting the unredacted reports by security company Verrimus, and any other related information in connection with the investigation into suspected surveillance at GSOC offices, be made available to the committee on a confidential basis
  • To invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter TD to address the committee on these developments and to assess the approach he and his Department propose to take to respond to the concerns raised.

It said that it is undertaking this process “conscious of the need to secure public confidence in the administration of justice”.

Questions asked

GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien and other members of the Ombudsman faced questions from TDs and Senators over a report in the Sunday Times that the agency’s communications systems were bugged.

They reiterated this afternoon that three threats had been picked up during a security sweep by a UK-based firm, and that a report was written on this. O’Brien was given a copy of this report and ‘sat on it’ before Christmas, but did not contact the Justice Minister Alan Shatter or Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan about it – and told the committee he regrets this fact.

O’Brien said that this had “nothing whatsoever to do with me having any lack of trust in the Minister for Justice”.

He said that there are “indications we may have had some suspicion that something was surveilling us”, but that there is an issue of impreciseness around this.

There is no evidence that An Garda Siochána was surveilling GSOC, he said.

Kieran Fitzgerald of GSOC said that investigations of this nature do leave some unanswered questions at the end of them.

O’Brien said that he suspects he may have another ‘early Sunday morning’, indicating that more information related to the sweep may be in the hands of a journalist.

Secret meetings

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O’Brien told the committee that he “strongly suspects” that a copy of a section of the report on the sweep, marked ‘secret’ was in the hands of a journalist.

He said that he regrets that the Minister for Justice has been blindsided by the release of this information.

O’Brien said that the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, was similarly blindsided.

According to O’Brien, the final report makes reference to reasons for the sweep which do not match with his recollection of these reasons – but he said he believed this arose because of a misunderstanding and he makes no criticism of the authors.

An internal inquiry has been launched by GSOC to see how much information from the report was in the public domain.

O’Brien reiterated the fact that he regrets the fact the results of the security sweep had not been reported to Minister Shatter or the Garda Commissioner.

image

He said he had the report in his possession just prior to the Christmas break and he had to “think carefully” about the need to report it to the Minister or other parties.

O’Brien said that had he been the Garda Commissioner, “I would have been furious”, about what occurred.

“I am quite happy to stand before you and be called into account,” he said.

O’Brien said that suspicious activity was noted during the sweep, but that it hadn’t gone to the threshold of an offence.

Of the third of three threats identified, the security company is of the opinion that it involves a device that is only available to government agencies. “I have not got the level of expert advice to know whether that’s right or wrong,” said O’Brien.

Meetings

O’Brien told the committee that they did not discuss the investigation using mobile phones, or by meeting in his office or elsewhere.

We ended up having to keep it so tight that we were meeting in cafés in Capel St to discuss this because the security firms have told us very, very clearly the threats that can be made on mobile phone with very little technology.

“We work in an information-rich environment,” commented O’Brien, when speaking about the reasons why there may be risks to the work that GSOC does.

“This security check came as nothing more that while risks were increasing, we might need to start thinking about what risk we were exposing ourselves to.”

Internal sweep

O’Brien said that around four to five people would have been involved in the original security scan, and that when the investigation was opened up, a cohort of around 10 people were included in the investigation as it moved forward.

He said around seven people would have access to the report.

He told the committee that they are not just confining their suspect group to those individuals who were involved, but are carrying out investigations to see if people could have made copies of the report.

As to whether the office was ‘bugged’, O’Brien said he does not use the word ‘bugged’ as it is old-fashioned and conjurs up old ways of thinking about how surveillance may be conducted.

He told Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett that he doesn’t know whether the leak was ‘high level’ or ‘low level’, but that it is highly likely the information has come from documents within the GSOC.

Evidence

Justice Minister Alan Shatter told the Dáil yesterday, however, that there was no definitive evidence of electronic surveillance at the GSOC.

GSOC commissioner Kieran Fitzgerald repeated on RTÉ that there was no “definitive evidence” of bugging at its Dublin headquarters but said it could not be entirely ruled out either.

Read: Dáil hears alleged conversation: ‘If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished’

Read: Garda Ombudsman in ‘state of heightened awareness’ over Boylan inquiry

Read: Suggestion gardaí involved in GSOC surveillance was ‘baseless innuendo’

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