“Such activity cannot be condoned as it represents a clear and present danger to our democracy,” the Prime Minister told MPs in a statement in the House of Representatives. “Words cannot express the deep sense of personal outrage and hurt I feel about this matter. Such an unwarranted and unjustified invasion of citizens’ privacy is a cause for alarm.”
Persad-Bissessar said the SIA’s illegal wiretapping was aimed at the Head of State, members of the judiciary, trade unionists, journalists, media houses, radio talk-show hosts, comedians, persons in the entertainment industry, former Opposition MPs, former Government Ministers — including Dr Keith Rowley — sports personalities, businessmen, columnists, advertising executives, county councillors, lawyers and, “in some cases the children of such persons.”
“We may never know all of the persons whose right to privacy was compromised by the unlawful intrusion of wiretapping,” the Prime Minister said. She added, “There was evidence to suggest that a massive sanitisation operation took place after the general elections. Empty folders carrying the names of the individuals who were the subject of interception were found. Other records of taped conversations and transcription of conversations have been removed and/or destroyed.”
“It grieves my heart to say whilst our children were being kidnapped and the Anti-Kidnapping Squad (AKS) seemed powerless and unable to trace the several telephone calls demanding ransoms, the SIA was busy listening to conversations of politicians and conversations of prominent members of society who had no connection with criminal activity,” Persad-Bissessar said. “How many men women and children who were kidnapped or abducted could have been saved we will never know.”
Persad-Bissessar read a select list of some of the persons who were spied upon. Of the prominent personalities, she said the President had his phone tapped. Her revelation was all the more shocking as it came mere hours after Richards appeared in public addressing a mediation symposium at he Hyatt Regency a few blocks away at Dock Road, downtown Port-of-Spain.
Persad-Bissessar said Sharma’s wife and son, Shiv, who is an attorney, also had their phones tapped. In an immediate reaction, the former Chief Justice yesterday said the Constitution was “violated in the worst kind of way.”
“The people whose duty it was to protect the Constitution have violated it in the worst kind of a way, a way that is reminiscent of the Gestapo,” he said. “I am convinced that this was a malicious and deliberate and wicked action and that official office was used to perpetuate it.”
He continued, “It may be argued that it is a clear case of mischief in public office or misbehaviour in public office. How could you do such a thing without authority of anything at all? This should never happen except in a communist state. Not only did they target me, but my wife and my son too?”
Other members of the judiciary who were said to have been spied on include: Justice Carol Gobin and former judge (now a minister) Herbert Volney. Persad-Bissessar also said there was surveillance on a “Justice Narine” but did not specify which one.
Politicians of all ilk appeared to have been on the list for surveillance by SIA, including: Persad-Bissessar, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, Speaker Wade Mark, Government Chief Whip Roodal Moonilal, Finance Minister Winston Dookeran, Minister of National Security John Sandy. Opposition Leader Keith Rowley, Diego Martin North East MP Colm Imbert, and even PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi were also named.
Other persons who were said to have had their phones tapped included: former Acting Commissioner of Police James Philbert, former CEO of the San Fernando City Corporation Marlene Coudray, comedian Rachel Price, Maha Saba head Sat Maharaj and sportsman and former UNC senator Ato Boldon.
Persad-Bissessar’s 45-minute statement came one day after she promised to present legislation to regulate the practice of wiretapping after news broke over the practices of the SIA in the press.
The Prime Minister said while she was made aware of the existence of the SIA upon becoming Prime Minister and thereby chairman of the National Security Council, she was never briefed about the agency’s wiretapping practices.
“At no time...did my brief on this agency inform me that the agency was involved in illegal wiretapping and interception of communications of private citizens. Had I been briefed about this secret aspect of the agency’s functions, I would have taken immediate steps to address an act which I am advised to be unconstitutional and illegal,” she said. Persad-Bissessar said she received a report on the matter “less than two weeks ago”.
She noted that while the Strategic Security Agency (SSA) has a foundation in law, the SIA has no statutory basis and appeared to have been designed to operate “outside of the law.” She said the SIA seemed to be a law unto itself and revealed that $15 million in funds it handled cannot be accounted for. Additionally, she said, the wiretapping of subjects appeared to continue even after the May 24 General Election.
“The wiretapping continued after the results of the last General Election. It is alleged that information gathered by the SIA was secretly being siphoned to a certain Opposition MP,” she said, without naming that MP. At the same time, she said the SIA and other spying agencies such as the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) reported directly to former Prime Minister Patrick Manning and former national security minister Martin Joseph.
“These agencies reported directly to the Minister of National Security and the Prime Minister as head of the country’s National Security Council,” she said. “In some cases this power was misused to spy on political opponents and perceived political enemies. In other cases no clear justification exists...for interception and remain dubious and questionable.”
Persad-Bissessar traced the issue of wiretapping back to her suspicions, since September 2008, that Manning had a hand to play in surveillance over her. She noted that in 2008, Manning said in Parliament that he had asked “one of the security agencies” to check on a claim that Persad- Bissessar was in league with “someone in the Integrity Commission.”
Manning appeared to have no reaction as he listened to Persad-Bissessar’s statement with his legs crossed and his hands clasped over his lap. However, he later engaged in a bitter tiff with Speaker Wade Mark after Persad-Bissessar’s speech ended at about 3 pm.
At a press conference held minutes later, Manning admitted knowing that the SIA was engaged in wiretapping, even as he said he was, when in government, making moves to legalise the practice. He also, for the first time, said he once asked former Integrity Commission chairman Gordon Deane to “monitor” an official at the Integrity Commission in relation to the alleged Persad-Bissessar link.
Persad-Bissessar was clear that wiretapping is illegal in this country.
“Any use of interception...represents a dark and sinister side of governance and is symptomatic of a creeping dictatorship,” she said. “The confirmed use of wiretapping by secret agencies in the State without the approval of this Parliament–and therefore the people–is illegal.”
“That such illegal activity was sanctioned by the executive arm of the State...is a tragedy and an extremely dangerous precedent,” she said. “It shows that the country was being run by executive decree,” she added, calling this, “an abuse of the people.”
Of the conduct of the former PNM Cabinet, Persad-Bissessar said, “We have discovered that there are several security agencies with the capacity to intercept communications. These State agencies were authorised by the then Cabinet to intercept private communications of unsuspecting, innocent citizens in circumstances where it is not at all clear what the justification was. There was a lack of coordination and an unnecessary duplication of effort and resources.”
She noted that the previous administration planned to merge the statutory body the SSA with the unregulated SIA, “in what I suspect was a plan to legitimise the SIA.”
In unveiling legislation to regulate the practice of wiretapping, Persad-Bissessar noted that the practice of wiretapping could be used to combat crime, but only subject to safeguards.
“I want to make it very clear that while wiretapping is an important tool that can greatly assist the police in the fight against crime and can protect national security, it must not be done outside of the law and must be carefully regulated and justified on the basis of necessary criminal intelligence or a potential threat to national security,” she said.
Persad-Bissessar announced that the SAUTT will be stripped of powers to intercept communications and that the SIA will report to the Ministry of National Security under the planned legislative overhaul. Additionally, interception will now only occur after permission is granted by a judge in the form of a warrant valid for 90 days and renewable twice thereafter. She noted that the new legislation tabled yesterday, but drafted since 2007, will require a special three-fifths majority of Parliament.
“That such illegal activity could have been facilitated and supported by the executive arm of the State is a stain on our proud and cherished tradition of parliamentary democracy,” she said. “It has cast a long dark shadow on the politics of our country. We may never fully appreciate the dangerous consequences that such actions may have on a civilised society based on law and order with respect for the rule of law.”
SIA’s spy targets
The phones of the following persons/offices were wiretapped
HEAD OF STATE
President George Maxwell Richards
Former Chief Justice Sat Sharma, his wife Kalawati Sharma and his son Shiv Sharma
Former Justice Herbert Volney
Madam Justice Carol Gobin
Wade Mark (now Speaker)
The UNC’s head office
Constituencies offices of UNC MPs
Faris Al Rawi
Former Commissioner of Police
Former Security Chief Richard Kelshall
Former Chief of Defence John Sandy
(now National Security Minister)
Errol McLeod (now government minister)
MAHA SABHA SECRETARY GENERL