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Statement by the Minister for Justice on allegations of surveillance of offices of GSOC



Statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, TD on allegations of surveillance of offices of Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission 

11 February 2014

I would like to begin by emphasising the important public role played by An Garda Síochána as the police force in this State and by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) as the independent body with the important remit of investigating allegations of police misconduct.  Each is a crucial pillar in our constitutional democracy and each plays a vital role in the public interest. It is of vital importance that public confidence is maintained in each of these bodies and that when carrying out their duties they at all times behave in a manner which is appropriate. Each of them has an important and separate investigative role and it is crucial that that role is exercised with the utmost integrity and any conclusions reached when investigations are undertaken are based on well founded and solid evidence. 

It is of vital importance that both organisations comply with their statutory reporting obligations and communicate clearly on issues of public concern and leave no room for ambiguity.  It is also important that each organisation respects the role of the other and is mindful of the service they perform in the public interest. 

Each must be conscious of how their actions and words may affect public confidence in each organisation but must show no fear or favour when seeking to ascertain the truth on issues no matter how difficult or potentially controversial. This is my basic starting point in my reporting to the House this evening.  

I welcome this opportunity to place on the record of this House the facts as they are known to me about allegations that the offices of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were subject to surveillance.  

As the House will be aware, these allegations first surfaced in a newspaper last Sunday under the headline ‘GSOC under high-tech surveillance’.

It is important to say at the outset that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has informed me that, after an investigation, they concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance of their offices was found.  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.

I first learnt of these allegations from the newspaper report last Sunday.  I immediately made contact with my officials and we arranged to meet yesterday with the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Simon O’Brien.  For reasons which I hope the House will understand, I refrained from public comment on this matter until that meeting was held and I had a chance to brief my colleagues in Government on the matter this morning.

I will now set out the facts on the basis of the briefing which I received from the Commission.  I want to emphasise that this account is based on the information available to me at present.  The House will understand that there needs to be – and is – continuing engagement between my Department and GSOC about this matter.  I have requested that I be furnished with the report received by them arising out of the security check on their offices and I await their response to this request. 

The issue in question arose following a security sweep, in September 2013, of GSOC’s offices in Dublin.  I am informed that there was no specific concern which caused GSOC to organise the security sweep, which was carried out by a security firm based in Britain.  It was a routine sweep of a nature which had occurred previously.  I do not think anyone could argue that it is unreasonable for a body which, of its nature, holds sensitive information to take measures to ensure the security of its communications.

I am aware that, in the normal course, it is not desirable to put in the public domain issues relating to security of technology and communications.  But, because of the particular public concerns which have arisen in relation to this issue, I will give the House as much information as I can.  I am concerned too that some of the public comments which have been made may have inadvertently led to some confusion surrounding this issue.

I am advised by GSOC that the sweep identified what they refer to as two technical anomalies which raised a concern of a surveillance threat to GSOC.   I should emphasise that my understanding is that what was at issue were potential threats or vulnerabilities, not evidence that surveillance had, in fact, taken place.  A subsequent sweep identified a third potential issue.  There was no suggestion that there was any risk of unauthorised access to the GSOC databases and the documentation on them.

The first identified issue arose from a wi-fi device, the property of GSOC acquired in 2007/2008 located in its Boardroom, which was found to have connected to an external wi-fi network.  Access to this device was protected by a password, and in the absence of this password any connection should not have been possible.  In any event, GSOC does not operate a wi-fi network, and had never therefore activated this device (and does not even know what the password is), but the fact of the connection was a concern.  How this occurred is unknown and there is no suggestion by GSOC that it resulted in any information being accessed.  I am also advised that the wi-fi device was unable to communicate with any of GSOC’s databases or electronic systems and that the boardroom is not generally used for meetings.

The second potential issue related to the conference call telephone in the Chairman’s office which was subject to a number of tests.  One of the tests involved sending an audio signal down the telephone line.  Immediately after this transmission, the conference phone line rang.  GSOC conducted a number of checks to establish the source of this telephone call, but was unable to do so.  Further checks revealed no additional anomalies or matters of concern.  There is no evidence of which I am aware from my meeting with the Chairman of GSOC of any phone call made or received being compromised. 

The third issue related to the security firm reporting the detection of an  unexpected UK 3G network in the area in the locality of the GSOC offices which suggested that UK phones registered to that network making calls would be vulnerable to interception.  Importantly, I am advised that neither the Chairman nor any other member of GSOC or its employees use UK-registered mobile phones, so that the presence of any such device in the locality would not seem to have posed a threat to the integrity of GSOC’s communications systems. There appears to be no evidence that what was detected had any direct relevance to GSOC. 

As I understand it those three issues represent the totality of the concerns which arose.

GSOC proceeded to investigate all three issues, with expert assistance from the security company involved, and, as I have indicated, concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was found.  GSOC decided that no further action was necessary or reasonably practical.  I am aware that some people have called for an inquiry into this matter but this seems to overlook entirely the fact that GSOC, which is an investigatory body, carried out an investigation and itself decided that no further action was necessary.  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 would, of course, be a matter of the gravest concern if GSOC were, in fact, subject to surveillance from any quarter and I am sure the House will welcome the fact that, notwithstanding the conclusions of its investigation, it has since reviewed the security of its IT and communications systems with a view to further enhancing their security. As the Taoiseach already stated. should GSOC require any additional resources in this context this will be provided. 

At my meeting with the Chairman of GSOC, I took the opportunity to underscore the importance of prompt reporting to me of issues of concern, as provided for under the legislation governing GSOC.   I have to tell the House that the failure to make such a report is a matter of substantial concern to me. It is only fair to note that at our meeting the Chairman expressed regret at the decision by GSOC not to make such a report.  

I have no doubt that GSOC fully appreciate the need for public confidence in its actions and that is why I welcome the fact that they have agreed to appear tomorrow before a Committee of this House to answer any questions about this matter.

I am aware of comments made by the Garda Commissioner last night following the issuing of a statement by GSOC. All Members of the House have seen the questions raised by the Garda Commissioner.  GSOC is an independent body and it is for it to determine how to respond to those questions.  I am assuming they may be addressed at the meeting of the Oireachtas Petitions Committee  to be held tomorrow, if not before.  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.

While no information has been furnished to me by GSOC suggesting that An Garda Síochána was involved in any way in what gave rise to the concerns which arose in GSOC about their security, I think it might be useful in this debate to address more general issues which have arisen in relation to the relationship between An Garda Síochána and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. 

An Garda Síochána have played a proud role in this State since its foundation.  I think that we should never lose sight of the brave men and women of the Force who often are called on to take great risks to keep us safe.  I believe that the vast majority of people hold the Force in high regard, based on their personal experience of dealing with individual Gardaí.  As Minister, I have been determined to defend the Force from unjust attack.  

But, of course, no organisation is perfect and when problems arise they have to be addressed.  

Both as Minister, and before, I have been a strong supporter of an effective mechanism for the independent examination of allegations made against members of An Garda Síochána, which is the function of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.  I believe that this is not just in the public interest, but in the interests of the Gardaí themselves.  It is a feature of oversight arrangements the world over that tensions can arise between organisations and bodies which exercise oversight over them.  But it is in everybody’s interests that no-one should lose sight of the fact that the interest of both organisations is common: that persons exercise their powers in accordance with the law and that any wrongdoing is tackled effectively.  I have informed the House previously that I met jointly last year with the Garda Commissioner and the Chairman of GSOC and have put in place mechanisms in my Department to attempt to ensure that any difficulties which might arise in relation to their cooperation with each other are resolved quickly.

I hope that what I have said today will put in perspective some of the claims which have emerged in recent days.  In summary, concerns which GSOC had in relation to the security of their communications have been investigated by them, no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical evidence or electronic surveillance was uncovered, they deemed no further action necessary and took steps to review its systems with a view to further enhancing its security.

I will, of course, be happy to report again to the House should anything further significant emerge from the ongoing contacts between my Department and GSOC.