Sunday, April 21, 2024

High profile tapped in TT


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Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar said Friday that President George Maxwell Richards was among a list of prominent people, including politicians, trade unionists, journalists and even sports personalities whose phones had been illegally tapped by a unit formed in 2005 by the then Patrick Manning administration.
In an immediate move aimed at preventing a re-occurrence of such an activity, the Prime Minister said her administration would introduced the Interception of Communication Bill 2010 that she said would “provide that lawful interception of communication can only be done by means of a judicial warrant, applied for in writing by an authorised officer and issued by a Judge after he has taken a number of factors into consideration”.
An effort by Manning to respond to the statement by the Prime Minister was denied by the Speaker, who pointed out that the rules do not allow for any debate on statements by ministers.
Persad Bissessar told legislators that the issue of wiretapping or interception of communications is a troubling and vexing one “because it is a surreptitious invasion of your right to privacy” and that while in opposition she had indicated to the country that the Manning administration was engaged in intercepting private conversations of citizens, including hers.
“I now know this to be true,” she said, naming a number of public officials including the present Speaker of Parliament Wade Mark, Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley, members of the judiciary including former Chief Justice Sat Sharma, trade union movement, the media, former Olympian Ato Bolden and comedienne Rachel Price.
She said that the information about the operations of the Secret Intelligence Agency (SIA) came following a police raid late last month and that the government had earlier thought it had dealt with the issue of wire tapping when it disbanded the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) soon after it won the May 24 general election.
She said SAUTT, like SIA had been operating illegally and without any Parliamentary approval and that she was made aware of SIA as Chairman of the National Security Council.
“At no time however, did my brief on this agency inform me that the agency was involved in illegal wiretapping and interception of communications of private citizens. Had I been briefed about this secret aspect of the agency’s functions, I would have taken immediate steps to address an act which I am advised to be unconstitutional and illegal.
“I was therefore shocked when I received a report, less than two weeks ago, which suggested that one of our security agencies, the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) may also be involved in political wire tapping.”
The Prime Minister said that the information suggested that sensitive information obtained via illegal wire tapping of government ministers phones was being supplied to a certain Opposition legislator “who sits in this honourable House and served the highest level in government under the previous administration”.
The Prime Minister said that the SIA had highly sophisticated equipment and at a time when the nation was under siege from criminal activities “it grieves my heart to say whilst our children were being kidnapped and the Anti-Kidnapping Squad (AKS) seemed powerless and unable to trace the several telephone calls demanding a ransom, the SIA was busy listening to our conversations.
“How many men women and children who were kidnapped or abducted could have been saved we’ll never know,” she said, adding “let us not forget that some of those children have never been found and the stories from grieving parents about the archaic equipment that was used by the Anti-Kidnapping Squad in its failed attempt to trace the calls from the kidnappers as they demanded their pound of flesh.”
The Prime Minister said that the illegal wire tapping net was cast “far and wide” and that “such activity cannot be condoned as it represents a clear and present danger to our democracy.
“Words cannot express the deep sense of personal outrage and hurt I feel about this matter. Such an unwarranted and unjustified invasion of citizen’s privacy is a cause for alarm. Why on earth would a government wish to engage in such unproductive illegal activity when the country was under siege as a result of criminal activity?”
The Prime Minister said that apart from illegally intercepting phone calls, the SIA was also engaged in monitoring of peoples email,
“One list provided by the Commissioner of Police contains the name of every single government Minister in the People’s Partnership. Sadly, Mr. Speaker the names of our children are also included on this list,” she told legislators, adding that it was with a “heavy heart” she disclosed the names of prominent public officials whose lives had been monitored illegally by the SIA.
“I regret the further intrusion into the private lives by virtue of this disclosure but I felt it necessary to do so to demonstrate by reference to hard evidence the depth and extent of the dictatorial operations of the former administrations.
“Under the former Government, Big Brother seems to have taken a very keen interest in ordinary citizen’s private lives and affairs. I want to reassure you that I do not intend to move from Big Brother tom Big Sister. “
The Prime Minister said that the Special Branch indicated that the  SIA was a virtual law unto itself that reported directly to the Minister of National Security and the Prime Minister.
She said there were also serious concerns about accountability and transparency after Special branch officers found TT$5.9 million dollars (US$983,000) in cash and an undisclosed quantity of firearm and ammunition were seized. TT $15 million (US$2.5 million) cannot be accounted for,” the Prime Minister said, adding that there was also evidence to suggest that a massive sanitization operation took place after the general elections.
“Empty folders carrying the name of the individuals who were the subject of interception were found.  
Other records of taped conversations and tran scri ption of conversations have been removed and/or destroyed. We may never know all of the persons whose right to privacy was compromised by the unlawful intrusion of wiretapping.”
The Prime Minister said that the appointment of the SIA director, Nigel Clements has since been revoked and that the lack of co-ordination among the security agencies cannot be allowed to continue.
“Hence, we are in the process of reviewing the various intelligence agencies with a view to streamlining their activities so as to obtain the best value for money and a more effective system for gathering criminal intelligence.”
The Prime Minister said that the Interception of Communications Bill will strike a balance between the need for regulated wiretapping in limited circumstances as a weapon in the fight against crime and the need to prevent the abuse and misuse of the power to intercept private communications.
“… let me make it clear: it is our view that wiretapping is an important tool that can greatly assist the police in the fight against crime and protect national security. It must however be carefully regulated and justified on the basis of necessary criminal intelligence or a potential threat to national security.”
She said that gang activity, organized crime, violent crime and drug trafficking continue seemingly unabated and that detection rates are low and conviction rates are declining as eyewitnesses refuse to testify because of the very real fear of reprisal.
“Governments worldwide have found it necessary to embrace the use of communications interception to collect the vital intelligence needed to gain the advantage to fight domestic and international crime and terrorism,” she said, particularly in an era where there is an influx of telecommunications providers on the local market and Internet communications and transactions have grown dramatically.
But she maintained that the right of the individual must be balanced, however, against the interests of national security, the public interest and the economic well-being of the country. When these interests conflict the public interest must prevail where reasonably justifiable.
“It is often necessary that individual rights are abrogated to some measure where there is a threat to the public good. In determining the rules to govern any society, priority must be given, inter alia, to the maintenance of public order, the security of the State and the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of crime.
“As such, the State recognizes that in certain circumstances the rights of the individual may be suspended to allow the State to combat the threat.  This is true whether the threat manifests itself as serious organized crime, terrorism or a threat to national security,” the Prime Minister added.

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