By Katie Hannon, Prime Time's Political Correspondent
To use the currently fashionable terminology, one could not ‘definitively’ say that Justice Minister Alan Shatter‘s account of the GSOC bugging controversy was ‘technically’ inaccurate. However a quick comparison between the Minister’s Dail statement and the briefing note that has now come to light does throw up a number of what we might call ‘anomalies’.
The briefing note prepared for Minister Shatter goes into considerable detail about three potential threats identified by the UK security firm Verrimus during two security sweeps of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission’s offices in September and October of last year.
A Wi-Fi device located in GSOC’s conference room was found to have connected to an external Wi-Fi network. As GSOC does not have a Wi-Fi network , the briefing note states, ‘its connection to an external network was, therefore, a concern.’
Another test of the conference call telephone in the Chairman’s office involved sending an alerting signal. Immediately after sending this signal, the phone rang. The briefing note states: ‘The Verrimus operator judged that the likelihood of a wrong number being called at that time, to that exact number, at the time of an alerting test, was so small as to be virtually zero.’
There are also details about what the briefing note refers to as ‘threat 3’. It states that during a visit by the security specialists in October, a UK 3G network was detected. ‘They advised that such a network can only be simulated through a device called a, “IMSI catcher”. The briefing note states that : ‘The specialist firm indicated that this level of technology is only available to Government agencies.’
The day after the Minister received this briefing note along with a two hour oral briefing from the chairman of GSOC, Simon O’Brien, the Taoiseach confidently assured the Dail: ‘the GSOC found no evidence of unauthorised sophisticated technical or electronic surveillance. I think that is clear.’
Shortly afterwards, Minister Shatter got to his feet to outline the three ’technical anomalies’ which he said he wanted to ‘emphasise’ were ‘potential threats or vulnerabilities, not evidence that surveillance had, in fact, taken place.’
He didn’t mention the assessment that the possibility of an innocent explanation for the conference call line ringing at the precise moment that it was being tested was ‘virtually zero.’
He didn’t mention that the IMSI technology was of a level ‘only available to government agencies’ or, as his briefing note states, that the only innocent explanation for its presence in the vicinity of the GSOC office was that another government agency was lawfully using it to counter subversion or organised crime.
He said that ‘GSOC proceeded to investigate all three issues....and concluded that no definitive evidence of unauthorised technical or electronic surveillance was found.’ He didn’t mention, as his briefing note does, that GSOC had in fact launched a public interest investigation ‘on the basis that the Acting Director of Investigations was of the opinion that that such surveillance may have originated with AGS [An Garda Siochana].’
In all the confusion this story has generated, what is inescapable is that the version of events the Minister’ gave to the Dail fell considerably short of telling the whole story. Those pesky details that he omitted to mention would have put an entirely different slant on this affair, as they ultimately did when the GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien divulged them 24 hours later. Just how and why this occurred will doubtless now be the focus of further inquiry.