Lies and Obfuscation Have Been the Name of the Game in the GSOC Bugging Scandal

(This piece later was later published at in February 2014)

Lying is ingrained into Irish politics. There is nothing new in politicians lying but in the case of Ireland, it has become so commonplace that instead of anger there is only apathy or indifference to it. In Ireland, both politicians and the average person consider it so par for the course that Pat Rabbitte is able to go on national television and declare that lying in the lead up to a general election is something that you “tend to do”. The case of the bugging of the headquarters of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) is no different in this regard. We have seen government ministers, high-ranking members of the Gardaí, and journalists, lie and obfuscate. The facts are clear and are uncontroversial. The reaction to the revelations have been anything but uncontroversial, however.

First off, Alan Shatter and Enda Kenny were more concerned with the fact that they weren’t informed about GSOC carrying out an investigation into suspicions that their HQ was bugged than the fact that bugging had potentially, and likely, taken place. The government claimed that under Section 80 subsection 5 of the Garda Síochána Act, GSOC were obligated to inform the office of the Minister of Justice of their investigation. Shatter was still claiming this last night in the Dáil. The problem is that no such obligation exists, with the supposed obligation of GSOC to have informed the minister’s office of their investigation being purely discretionary. This position was backed by former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness on the February 18th edition of Tonight With Vincent Browne . This particular claim continues to do the rounds, no doubt to the government’s advantage, in order to beat the GSOC around the head and inevitably sully their public image.

The reaction of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has been no better. Within 24 hours of the story becoming public Callinan declared that it was “of grave concern that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’s statement contains a clear indication that An Garda Síochána was in some way suspected of complicity”. The GSOC’s area of responsibility is clearly delineated. It works with and investigates only a specific part of Irish society. It stands to reason then that only limited number of persons or organisations stand to benefit from bugging their HQ. This didn’t stop Callinan from stating “at no stage was any member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission or any of its members under surveillance by An Garda Síochána”. How the Commissioner could know this for certain before a full and impartial investigation has taken place is beyond most of our understanding. What is implicit in this is that we should simply take his and the government’s word for it. Unfortunately, that is not how democracy is supposed to work.

Certain journalists have also had their part to play in attempting to undermine the GSOC’s concerns. One particular journalist claimed the UK 3G network that was detected in a security assessment in October of last year was not, as GSOC and the security firm, Verrimus, determined, caused by an IMSI Catcher. Said Catcher puts out a false mobile network signal, acts as a base station, and any nearby mobile phone connects to the Catcher thinking that it is a legitimate phone tower. In actuality it isn’t, and it is used to suck up the data of nearby phones connected to it, including text messages, the content of calls, and can apparently even be used to change the content of messages. In the case here, the IMSI Catcher was putting out the signal of a UK mobile phone network in order to capture the data of nearby UK mobile phones.

The chairman of the GSOC, Simon O’Brien, has gone on to confirm that members of his team use UK registered mobile phones, which makes it quite obvious that it was their data in particular that was the target of the IMSI Catcher. The journalist in question claimed that members of the security firm, Verrimus, had UK registered mobile phones with them during their security sweeps, that it was these signals which were being picked up, and that the threat of an IMSI Catcher is essentially a red herring. Of course the fact that a “mobile phone cannot create a 3G base station” was of no concern, even when this very fact was pointed out in a statement issued yesterday by Verrimus. The statement further pointed out that it was therefore “impossible that Verrimus operator’s phones were the source of the fake Mobile Country Code (MCC) and fake Mobile Network Code (MNC) that was detected”. The journalist in question as of the morning of February 19th was standing by their claims. Is this level of sophistry surprising? Perhaps. Or perhaps it isn’t considering the journalist in question has had close contacts with Gardaí for a number of years and is one of those who has had penalty points wiped from their licence.

Since the story broke nearly two weeks ago, a number of questions have gone unanswered. Firstly, who stands to gain the most from bugging the GSOC HQ? Secondly, is this linked to the Kieran Boylan case which the GSOC had been investigating? Thirdly, is it linked to the issue of penalty points being wiped from the licences of certain high profile Irish citizens? Finally, has Alan Shatter placed journalists under surveillance? This last question he has refused to comment on. Something that has up to now gone unsaid is that there is a precedent for illegal surveillance being carried out in Ireland with the approval of the government, or at the very least some of its ministers. Previous Minister of Justice, Seán O’Doherty, bugged the phones of journalists he was not particularly fond of. This was apparently done with the knowledge of the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, with the reasoning being that they were both concerned with information about the cabinet leaking to the media. The day after the story broke in January 1983, O’Doherty issued a statement admitting that he had ordered the taps on the basis that, “national security was endangered through leaks of highly confidential papers and memoranda”. What’s to say that history isn’t repeating itself today, especially when the stakes are so much higher?