Persad-Bissessar said based on information recovered by police investigating the Special Intelligence Agency (SIA), for spying, it is being alleged that the covert operations were commissioned by a political party, which she did not name.

“It is frightening! To whom was this information being fed?” Persad-Bissessar asked during a news conference at Piarco International Airport after her return from the United States.

The discovery by Special Branch that SIA had been spying on politicians, journalists, judges and other persons in public life across the country was one of the issues Persad-Bissessar immediately addressed on her return.

She told reporters she would be making a statement in Parliament on the issue today but disclosed a scenario of citizens’ phones being tapped and said the SIA continued its spying operations even after a change of government, following the May 24 General Election.

“What were you doing with the information? It could not have been to fight criminals,” she said.

Special Branch shut down the operations of SIA two weeks ago when it was discovered that it had been spying on persons by wiretapping cellphones, land lines, as well as intercepting emails and text messages. Persad-Bissessar, COP leader Winston Dookeran and PNM leader Dr Keith Rowley were among politicians who were spied on long after the general election.

Persad-Bissessar disclosed that transcripts and tapes had been found by Special Branch. “Few people knew this existed....Members of all parties were spied on,” she said.

Special Branch, working with the Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau (ACIB), also recovered $5.8 million in cash and firearms in a vault at one of the locations where SIA operated. SIA is said to have bases in Port-of-Spain and across North Trinidad.

Commending the police led by Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs, Persad-Bissessar said the Special Branch and Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau (ACIB) are continuing investigations and a forensic audit is to be done to determine the source of the money.

Investigators believe the money was a “slush fund” to finance off-the-book activities such as paying staff of SIA to supply goods to it, noting there was one case of an employee selling a car to the unit.

Asked how she thought SIA’s spying activities were funded, Persad-Bissessar said, “It appears to be taxpayers’ money” explaining this was why a forensic audit had to be done.

Asked what action would be taken based on the information that has been recovered, Persad- Bissessar said this would be disclosed in her statement to the House of Representatives today.

Cabinet was expected to review yesterday, legislation that had been prepared on spying before Persad-Bissessar presents it to the House.

It has been reported that the head of SIA, an ex-Coast Guard officer, has been fired. The ex- Coast Guard officer is also reported to have been fired as director of the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), which was set up in 1995 by an Act of Parliament to coordinate operations to combat drug trafficking.

Budget documents revealed the SSA, which falls under the Ministry of National Security, had been allocated an estimated $104 million over the past five years.

It is unclear when the SIA, which is reported to have a staff of 200, was established and how its operations related to the SSA. SIA is not referred to in the SSA legislation. Sources however said SIA was established by a member of the then PNM government and the unit continued to report to this official even after the May 24 General Election.

Sources yesterday also said there may be a link between the SIA and the Special Anti-Crime Unit (SAUTT) which has also been under investigation for spying.

SIA, SSA and SAUTT are units which operate outside of the ambit of the Police Service throughout the country. SAUTT falls under the Ministry of National Security but has never been given legal status by an Act of Parliament, as the SSA has been.

Asked about the operations of such special units, Persad-Bissessar said in SAUTT’s case she expects to receive a report on it from Deputy Police Commissioner Stephen Williams in December.

On September 19, Newsday exclusively reported that it was discovered that SAUTT had tapped Persad-Bissessar’s phone and spied on her for a period before the general election and after.

Two days later, SAUTT director Brigadier Peter Joseph was fired and a probe of SAUTT’s operations was initiated. Subsequent to this, on September 26, a memo was circulated to SAUTT staff by Clive Robinson, manager technical operations, SAUTT Intelligence Directorate, titled: “Personal File Sharing”.

Newsday received a copy of this memo on Wednesday. The memo was on a SAUTT letterhead and addressed to all staff but a source said the memo was also sent to the staff of SIA, even though SAUTT and SIA are supposed to operate independently of each other.

The memo instructed staff to remove personal files from their computers which were not work-related but investigators say the document may have been a coded message to destroy sensitive material related to the investigations of SAUTT and SIA.

“As you may be aware we have been conducting a series of system backups recently to ensure that at this critical time and while SAUTT is under scrutiny that we do not lose any essential data if the servers or systems fail,” begins the memo.

It went on to state that staff had been storing personal files, including music, videos, letters, photos and they were advised to remove them as well as not to share files warning of the risk of computer viruses.

“Please do not use the system to pass personal files between each other, it leaves you vulnerable and exposes the organisation to criticism if this activity compromises our systems,” the memo further stated.

In relation to the SIA, sources yesterday said a list of names of persons to be monitored was complied in 1995 and then updated in 2007. It is reported that the high-tech surveillance equipment used by the SIA was purchased from Israel. Gibbs could not be contacted for comment on the SIA probe.

Former Police Commissioner James Philbert yesterday said the SIA was used in crime fighting but was not aware that it was involved in spying. “When I was there it provided service, enough to pull down a lot of big criminals and affect criminal activity,” Philbert said.



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