The Cooke Report on the bugging of GSOC: more questions than answers.


Tuesday night the government published the overdue Cooke Report into the GSOC bugging controversy. Retired High Court Judge John Cooke, no stranger to controversy himself (link: see comments) was appointed by Enda Kenny to establish whether the offices of GSOC were bugged.

Wednesday morning Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality and replacement for Alan Shatter after he was forced to resign, is lauding the report as an exoneration of the Gardaí. The 64-page report claims that “evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance…took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Síochána.” Yet there are a number of revelations in the report that raise serious questions as to its ability to speak to the bugging issue in a definitive manner.

Firstly, the supposed evidence considered in the report is questionable if not vague. BH Consulting are named as the sole security firm offering “technical advice” to Cooke. The consultancy firm was brought on board, it would appear, after an unsolicited letter from the company director Brian Honan, detailing his experience in technological surveillance, was delivered to Cooke by the Taoiseach. It is not clear the extent of Honan's contribution, or whether his services were paid for by the state or acquired on a voluntary basis.

Furthermore, BH Consulting only appears to have expertise in “informations and communications security.” So while they have knowledge of internet security it is certainly not obvious whether they have any expertise in counter-surveillance, which is what is needed to answer the question of whether GSOC was being bugged by An Garda Síochána.

A reading of the report would suggest that no interviews were conducted with members of An Garda Síochána or anyone who might have knowledge as to who might be under the surveillance of the state. Beyond interviews with a small number of GSOC members, and communications with Verrimus employees through the law firm Arthur Cox, it would appear that no attempt was made to discuss the matter with either the parties involved or those suspected of involvement. The same GSOC members expressed “serious concerns as to their ability or entitlement” to provide evidence to the inquiry as their duties commit them to secrecy and confidentiality. No review of the spying systems carried out by the state through the Gardai or even the Defence Forces was conducted, nor were any of their members interviewed.

Perhaps the most troubling issue to arise in the report is the account of surveillance on Verrimus members while under the employ of GSOC, by the Garda Special Branch. One incident at Dublin Airport detailed in the report suggests that members of the Special Branch (page 50 of report) had members of Verrimus under surveillance. Cooke himself finds it “very likely” (pg.50) that Special Branch carried out this surveillance (pg. 50). Yet why does Cooke does not ask why the Gardaí deemed it appropriate to watch and intimidate Verrimus?

There is little in the report to suggest that Cooke can definitively claim that Gardaí were not involved in GSOC bugging. Indeed, the report opens with: “it is impossible on the basis of the technical opinions and available information, categorically to rule out all possibility of covert surveillance in the three threats identified by Verrimus”, while going on to say “it is clear that the evidence does not support the proposition that actual surveillance of the kind asserted in the Sunday Times article took place and much less that it was carried out by members of the Garda Síochána.” Yet, Cooke admits that the Special Branch were highly likely to have been involved in the surveillance of Verrimus. At a minimum this raises serious questions about the report's indifference to these spying operations.

The Cooke report offers no clear evidence that the Gardaí are not implicated in the surveillance of GSOC, and much like the Rits report initiated by Shatter, is being used as a finger-pointing exercise directed at GSOC who are clearly the only body under investigation. The findings of the Cooke report means business as usual: a lack of transparency by the state and its judicial arm. Thus any calls for accountability in policing are shrouded in the scrapping between GSOC, the Gardaí and the Justice Department over nothing more than window-dressing.

Meanwhile, everyday policing continues to be enacted in ways that violate our communities without reproach [see comment 2 ] and is regularly borne out out on the backs of working-class young men [comment 3; comment 4]. The answer to the question 'who bugged GSOC' is not as telling as how the question is addressed, and by whom.

Words: Theresa O'Keefe @theresa_okeefe on twitter