Saturday, December 16, 2017

Spy Games

Whistle-blower alerts Govt to Israeli agents destroying files

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ordered probe: Kamla Persad-Bissessar

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previewed data: Anand Ramlogan

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The police crackdown on a rogue Government spy agency at the break of dawn on October 23 this year was compromised by a police double agent, who tipped off agency head Nigel Clement that a high-level police swat team was on their way.

Sunday Express investigations into the unfolding spy drama involving the abuse of secret wiretaps sanctioned by the Patrick Manning administration, have found a tangled web of shadowy political and intelligence figures; Israeli operatives; a stunning amount of intercepted data that has little or nothing to do with crime; the whistle-blower intelligence analyst who called attention to the Government's secret electronic spying on citizens, including President George Maxwell Richards; a slush fund that ran well over the seven-figure mark; a coded message sent to the Israeli spy equipment manufacturer for urgent sanitisation assistance; and police spies.

Sources, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, told the Sunday Express even as the country's premier intelligence-gathering unit, the Police Special Branch, was mapping out its tactical approach for a total lockdown of the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) command centre on St Vincent Street in Port of Spain, a police double agent was giving the rogue agency the heads-up police were on their way.

The Police Special Branch was acting on information provided by an SIA whistle-blower that two operatives from the Israeli manufacturer that sold the spy equipment to the T&T government in 2002, were on-site at the SIA spy post in Port of Spain and engaged in a massive data-sanitisation exercise.

By the time the high-level swat team, comprising officers of the Police Special Branch and the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau, arrived at the SIA command centre, the two Israelis were gone. So, too, were the file contents of the empty jacket folders left behind, intelligence sources have disclosed. The CCTV tapes which provide full electronic surveillance cover for the St Vincent Street SIA post were also said to have been wiped clean.

The rogue agency had reportedly stepped up its electronic spying on civilians and political opponents of former prime minister Manning following his defeat at the May 24 polls. The increased surveillance activity was noted by an intelligence analyst who, sources say, became aware of the illegal actions and the number of files opened in respect of prominent individuals.

In mid-October, the SIA analyst reportedly tipped off Prime Minister and chairman of the National Security Council (NSC) Kamla Persad-Bissessar who, in turn, sources say, directed Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs to conduct a full investigation into reports of State-sanctioned spying on civilians. But a coded e-mail message, dispatched from the St Vincent Street listening post to the spy equipment manufacturer in Tel Aviv, Israel, that "the fruit in the basket need fumigating", followed by the immediate arrival of two Israelis in Port of Spain, pushed the police spy probe into early action.

The police swoop was, however, compromised by a police spy who reported back to the SIA, according to sources.

The spy affair has sparked an intensifying public backlash and raised more questions and concerns than either the Persad-Bissessar Government or police officials seem prepared to answer, including who had sight and/or possession of the intercepted electronic material following the October 23 police raid. There is no clear answer on the custody chain of the intercepted material, and official statements from the Office of the Prime Minister and comments from Gibbs have added to the intrigue.

In attempting to deny a Sunday Express article, in which a Government source reported she had possession of some of the intercepted material in her capacity as chairman of NSC, the Prime Minister, in a press statement issued on December 6, made clear: "The Office of the Prime Minister wishes to state that it is not, nor has it ever been, in possession of any intercepted material by the SIA and all allegations otherwise are false, misleading and erroneous."

She pointedly refrained from saying whether she had access to the material in her capacity as chairman of NSC and went further to suggest the rogue spy agency fell under the purview of the Police Commissioner. It was not until Gibbs denied this statement and repeated his earlier comment made to this newspaper that SIA was a Government agency, that the Office of the Prime Minister corrected the earlier statement. Gibbs, according to a December 8 dispatch from the Office of the Prime Minister, had "sole and exclusive jurisdiction and control" over SIA investigations.

Sources have told the Sunday Express both the Prime Minister and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan have seen excerpts of the intercepted material, including Special Branch reports on the matter. Ramlogan said he was abroad at a doctor's appointment and could not talk on the issue when contacted on Friday. He did not respond to subsequent phone or text message requests for a comment. National Security Minister John Sandy was also unavailable for comment.

Gibbs has referred all questions related to SIA to the Police Public Affairs Unit. However, up to late yesterday, a formal request made to director Sharon Lee-Assang had gone unanswered. The country is also still to be told what spy data has been retrieved by Canadian experts brought in by Commissioner Gibbs to conduct a forensic audit; if said data has been destroyed, in keeping with requests made by Chief Justice Ivor Archie and civil rights groups; who may have access to it; and who, if anyone, has been tasked with handling the disposal of the intercepted data, which include telephone, e-mail and text communications of hundreds of civilians, including judges, journalists and labour leaders.

Intelligence sources, however, reported the intercepted information could be retrieved and was not that easily erased. The Israelis may simply have made it more difficult to access, said a former top operative. Sources said it was more than likely the Canadian technicians used highly sophisticated spyware to hack into the Israeli spy equipment, which was designed to tap into the domestic communications network.

A central figure of the scandal, Nigel Clement, the agency head and a former Coast Guardsman, has refused to comment on reports made by Attorney General Anand Ramlogan he has admitted to reporting directly to former prime minister Manning.

Clement has remained steadfast in his silence amid a firestorm of protests over governmental overreach and the violation of enshrined constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of the press, among other things. Except for the admission he is said to have made to the Attorney General, he has not said who gave the surveillance orders on ordinary civilians and on what grounds. He is yet to comment on his inner circle of five agents who, sources say, manned the civilian surveillance operations or the criteria—if there was any at all—used to target civilians.

He is also yet to give an account for the millions of taxpayers' dollars paid out to unspecified informants for so-called criminal intelligence or how useful this intelligence was to crime detection and/or prosecution of persons. Reports published in this newspaper identify informants, who were paid up to $20,000 in cash per month, as friends and relatives of SIA personnel.