Sunday, January 21, 2018

Just what are T&T’s secret agents up to?

Express editorial logo305

Mark Fraser

 With US DEA agents engaged with the Strategic Services Agency in the Norfolk, Virginia drug bust follow-up investigations, attention once again turns to the capacity and performance of the T&T’s intelligence gathering function. 

Since at least 2009, development in this area has been a work in progress, guided over two administrations by the advice of retired Canadian General Cameron Ross. He had observed “considerable overlap in the collection, analysis and distribution of intelligence”, by a variety of agencies that once included SAUTT, Defence Force Intelligence, SIA, Special Branch, SSA and NSCS.

Progress appears to have slowed, however, in the implementation of the Ross report recommendation for a single National Intelligence Agency. Formally adopted by the incoming People’s Partnership administration at least three years ago, the progress of amalgamation of intelligence units has itself been shrouded in secrecy.

If collaboration with the DEA is in the name of the SSA, and not the heralded NIA, the T&T public is entitled to be concerned. Confidence is inevitably undermined in the goings-on in the intelligence area, which had once produced national alarm.

Revelations suggested that electronic snooping had targeted officials as high-ranking as the President and the Chief Justice, and as lowly as working journalists, with opposition and other political figures somewhere in between. Rules ostensibly changed with the enactment of relevant legislation, but the capacity remains for eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mails, even if targets may have changed. 

Since the shocking 2010 revelations, which were topped only by the ensuing scandal that made “Reshmi” a household word, information has been so scarce as to justify troubled curiosity. In 2014, however, T&T should know and be guided by contemporary world experience, especially in the US. 

There, the National Security Agency has been exposed by fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden as a secret collector of mass phone data about Americans, and as an active monitor of electronic communications by foreign government heads. Under criticism at home and abroad, President Barack Obama last week announced policy guidelines for NSA’s gathering of electronic “metadata” and set safeguards against abuse of data collected. 

Under the Obama plan, which is still a subject of sharp controversy, the data will be kept in storage by a nongovernment agency. Court orders will be required for access, as well as for wiretapping. 

Mr Obama sought to balance national security concerns against citizens’ privacy rights. While T&T’s own Edward Snowden is yet to emerge, little or nothing is known about the scale or nature of the electronic data about citizens collected by the SSA, for one. But T&T citizens are as entitled as are Americans to the protections of privacy, and to safeguards governing the targeting of surveillance, and the abuse of captured data, newly adopted by Washington.