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


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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 a number of days ago 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 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?



7 Responses

  1. Cian Ó Concubhair (@CianOConcubhair)

    February 25, 2014 11:17 am

    Good critical summary. Just a point of note, if Shatter has signed off on wire-tapping of journalists to find out where they are sourcing material, this is not per se illegal. However undesirable it is in a democracy to have the state intercepting confidential material being passed on to journalists on matters of public importance, our privacy and press freedom laws permit the state to wiretap anyone who they believe will be in receipt of confidential state information.

    Now the grounds on which a Minister for Justice may have signed off on such a wiretap may be illegitimate – as in the leak itself was legally permissible – which might make the wiretap illegal. But bear in mind, as our superior courts are currently constituted (with an incredibly high level of deference to the Executive) it is easy enough for a current Minister for Justice to avoid the gross illegality of the 1970-80s bugging controversies.

    • meru

      March 6, 2014 4:20 pm

      tbh, – barely paid attention to the GSOC-Gardai-Minister story.
      But, how much does all this impinge on the ordinary person?
      Contrast that, with, the Private Security industry in this country.
      They seem to think they can (and they do), tag the ordinary person
      along any and many streets.
      This kind of tagging ‘concerted’ surveillance is actually an everyday
      occurrence, done by: security firms, shop to shop, professional office
      to professional office, business assocs. and chambers of commerce.
      Hope your contributors might investigate this all-pervasive private
      surveilance industry in this country. A start would be to query the
      Private Security Authority – , they are at Davis Street,
      Tipperary town. tel.: 062 32628/32624.
      The ordinary person in this country should be made more aware of
      this organisation.

      • Bryan Wall

        March 15, 2014 4:28 pm


        Thanks for your comment. I’ll be sure to look into the role of private security organisations in Ireland at some point, especially in relation to the GSOC bugging and what has taken place in Rossport over the last few years.

        These things, as I’m sure you know, take time though, and time is something in short supply with me as I’m in the process of doing a PhD.

        It’s definitely something I look further into though.


        • meru

          March 17, 2014 1:22 pm

          well, someone should. These private security firms really are no more than glorified porters. And there are so many of them. Yet, in some odd way; there possibly could be many more jobs, for them and others; were it not for the all-pervasive technology that they use. Does this technology, in any real sense, de-limit the amount of staff that any large store/firm actually really does need?
          Anyhow. It is good to see the opposition politicians demanding answers. But, in regard to this idea of the ‘big brother’ (Gardai?) watching us – they are, of course; but how many tens of thousands of private security are ‘profiling’ people? And make no mistake about it, they are.
          But politicians CANNOT TOUCH THIS – because the tens of thousands of ‘private security’ (porters) are; their Voters.
          It seems to be the main, unspoken, subliminal, reason, why politicians let these oppressive ‘yahoo’ porters continue their criminal routines.

  2. Eamonn Moran

    February 25, 2014 12:06 pm

    “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”. ” This is the most widely quoted misquote in the last few years. Its up there with when live on TV during Live Aid Bob Geldof said “Give us the Fvcking money” except he didnt.
    Or when Enda Kenny says that our effective corporate tax rate is higher here than France except the report he used to state that comment has been roundly rubbished.
    If you look back on the interview you can see what happened.
    One commenter on broadsheet put it best.
    “I’m not a fan of Pat Rabbitte, but this is, I think, being misinterpreted. What does Pat mean by “that”? I think the “that” he’s referring to is “keeping things simple”, rather than lying or breaking a promise. It’s bad phrasing on his part, but I don’t think it deserves the outrage that’ll doubtlessly fill the comments here.”

    It takes away from an otherwise good article.

    • Kestrel

      March 21, 2014 10:00 pm

      By no means am I a fan of Pat Rabbitte, but he may have been doing the people of this country a favour in stating how we accept lies. But maybe ‘lying’ was too strong a word and perhaps he meant that politicians tend to ‘dissemble’ during elections, in order to stave off others nabbing their policies.
      Somewhat the same may apply to Martin Callinan in that he said An Garda Siochana did not have GSOC or it’s members under surveillance. This might be so; as surveillance may be interpreted as more ocular, whereas GSOC saying that their offices were bugged. Though could it be that An Garda Siochana might have been aware of bugging.
      Since the GSOC staff and the firm Verrimus had UK registered mobile phones – is Capenhurst Tower in Cheshire still monitoring calls between England and here? This tower and the Ministry of Defence in the UK might possibly, or even formerly, have had links to those phones.
      That comment by ‘Cian’ (above), is a very sad reflection on all of us, the people of this country, as we always seem just not to bother, as long as it is not ourselves that is being bugged. By the way, do the privacy and press freedom laws ‘permit’ the State to do this, explicitly, or is this in omission only.