Saturday, February 24, 2018

ASP Maharaj is new SSA director


top post: Bisnath Maharaj

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provocative subject: Col Albert Griffith

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Bisnath Maharaj, an Assistant Superintendent assigned to the Special Branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), has been selected as the new Director of the Strategic Services Agency (SSA).

Maharaj was one of five police officers among 47 attorneys who were called to the bar on March 29.

Government is yet to make an official announcement but the Express understands that Maharaj's appointment was approved last week.

Maharaj will be the sixth person to head the country's intelligence unit.

As it exists now, the SSA is a merged entity of three organisations- the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA), the disbanded Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) and the SSA.

The SSA will be succeeded by a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) once legislation is brought to Parliament.

Maharaj will follow in the footsteps of fellow police officer Lance Selman who headed the organisation in its first incarnation— the Organisation of Strategic Services.

Selman was then succeeded by Admiral Richard Kelshall, Serena Joseph-Harris, Nigel Clement and Col Albert Griffith.

Griffith was appointed in March 2011 following the one-week tenure of under-qualified Reshmi Ramnarine (who later legally changed her name to Shashi Rekha) to the directorship post.

Griffith's term of office ended on February 29 but he held on, as requested by National Security Minister John Sandy, in a strictly administrative capacity until a new director was procured.

His last day at the SSA is today.

In an exclusive interview with the Express, Griffith spoke of negativity which dogged the organisation following allegations that the SIA was illegally intercepting phone calls and fallout from the Ramnarine fiasco.

He neither confirmed nor denied that illegal interception was still taking place.

Acknowledging that it's a "provocative" subject, he pointed out that interception was covered in legislation to minimise the possibility for abuse.

"Any system that marries technology and human beings could be defeated, deliberately or inadvertently, and it could be abused. That holds for anything which relies on that mix. I would not say that it's foolproof but I think extraordinary measures have been taken to ensure that abuse is really minimised," he told the Express.

He pointed out that legislation existed to govern intercept and "anyone who decides to abuse the system is also making the decision to go to jail if he's caught. And I think that's a significant game-changer".

The 53-year-old retired colonel wanted to clear the air on the first contentious issue which marked his tenure— a press release issued shortly after he assumed office which cleared deputy director Julie Browne of any knowledge of Ramnarine's qualifications.

Griffith admitted that what looked like a defence of Browne was a simple act of correcting disinformation which was in the public domain.

Contrary to what was reported, Griffith said Browne was examined by the same group of foreign polygraph experts and not a local expert as reported.

Secondly, she passed her polygraph test, he said.

"It reflected badly on the leadership of the organisation because the innuendo there is that this person is receiving preferential treatment. When the polygraph test was done and she was asked the question of the qualification, she passed. Which meant insofar as technology associated with the polygraph was concerned she has no prior knowledge that Reshmi's credentials were false," he explained.

He admitted that while it's not common practice to share a polygraph report with the public, it was issued with a view to correct the two pieces of disinformation in the public.

"The alternative would have been to let the country believe that there were all kinds of shady, nefarious bits of commess going on inside here," he said.

He said he was "quite surprised" when Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, who had supported his appointment at first, had questioned his integrity after the press release was published.

"It was unfortunate and irresponsible and it probably did not suit his agenda to have that information corrected. I don't know how my integrity came into it but it's just one of the things that goes with holding office," he said.

Griffith told the Express that he was given approval by National Security Minister John Sandy to talk to the Express on allegations that nepotism and favouritism plagued the hiring practices at the SSA.

In an email obtained by the Express, an employee of the SIA complained that Griffith, a former deputy director at SAUTT, favoured hiring former SAUTT employees and that there was an attempt to create a separate arm of the NIA utlising only former SAUTT personnel.

"They will have full control of part of the intercept suite without our knowledge of who are their targets," the employee complained.

Griffith denied the allegations, describing them as "mischievous".

He pointed out that part of his mandate when he was appointed was the "termination of all employment contracts of intelligence employees at the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) and SAUTT on August 31, 2011 and the reabsorption of many of those employees to take place..."

He pointed out that the National Security Council had only approved an organisational structure for the SSA last month "so recent that the minute has probably not been confirmed".

He said this structure will have a director, two deputy directors and five directors— one for Corporate Services, ICT, Criminal Intel, National Security Intel and Technical Support.

Sandy, who was in the Senate yesterday, responded by text to an enquiry from the Express.

He described the email of complaints as "Mischief. So very sad that people would stoop that low to tarnish the name of others simply because they harbour personal agendas."

Griffith admitted in the interview that merging three rival intelligence organisations, albeit on the same team, created "cultural, personal and doctrinal issues".

"You have to have a product to deliver to the government in terms of intelligence and credible intelligence because we have many stakeholders," he said.