By Raffique Shah
May 22, 2016
Really, it does not bother me that the Strategic Service Agency (SSA), or any other State intelligence agency, from the AIA to the ZIA, might want to peep through my back door, monitor what I am writing now, check my email before I do, or listen in on my telephone or family conversations at my home.
I have long accepted that with the sophisticated technology available to them, indeed to anyone who might want to “macco” people, the privacy that we once enjoyed, or thought we did, has ceased to exist.
The simple “smart phone” has elevated ordinary folks to directors and producers of video-clips that depict real-life action, from sex to extreme violence, which are posted on the Internet and often “go viral”, as millions of persons view them.
So what privacy can the average, law-abiding citizen expect to enjoy in an age when almost everything is recorded and posted, when social media freaks tell the world how toxic their anal emissions are, sound et al?
Which is why I cannot understand the furore that erupted when Government moved to broaden the remit of the SSA: since its formation in 1996, this shady outfit was tasked with gathering intelligence on illegal drugs activities.
To quote from its functions (in the original Act): “…act as an office for centralising information that could facilitate the detection and prevention of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs…for the suppression of illicit drug trafficking and drug-related matters…”
Although the process of selecting its director was not clear, the chain of command was: “The functions of the Agency shall be exercised by the Director after consultation with the Minister.”
And this: “…the Director shall be appointed by the President for a term not exceeding five years terminable at any time…”
So since 1996, three prime ministers (Basdeo Panday, Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar) and maybe six ministers of national security have overseen the SSA, hired and fired directors and senior staff, and been privy to “intelligence” gathered by whatever means.
But it has only now become a public and contentious issue because “it could spy on innocent citizens”.
Hello! In its 20 years, the SSA failed to bring one real drug baron to book, and the Opposition, who controlled it while they were in office (1996-2001, 2010-2015), are now raising fears about the agency wire-tapping ordinary citizens?
Did such illegal actions occur under their watch? I recall Mrs Persad-Bissessar, back in 2010, accusing Mr Manning of using the agency to spy on friends and foes.
How did she deal with it? She appointed a clerk, Reshmi Ramnarine, as director! When the media exposed the young lady as being woefully unqualified for the position, Ramnarine reluctantly resigned, and the PM said it was a mistake.
What followed was the dismantling of the Special Anti-crime Unit of T&T (SAUTT), mass firings of personnel, the removal and replacement of almost every senior and mid-ranked official at the SIA, SSA and other agencies…and crime marched on.
Today, the Keith Rowley Government, having terminated several senior officers and replaced them with its choices, is seeking to enlarge the SSA and broaden its scope to include all serious crimes.
Faced with murders-by-the-minute, Dr Rowley and his national security ministers and advisers are probably hoping that the new-look SSA will help stem the tide of crime.
I am not hopeful. Its main function is to gather intelligence from its own resources and other agencies, and disseminate what it believes are “actionable information” to the relevant services or forces-namely the police and Defence Force.
It is for the latter to use the information to monitor the suspects, make arrests and lay charges.
This is where things fall apart.
I’ll share information I’ve had for many years on one particularly gruesome case to illustrate why the criminals have the upper hand.
Within hours of the Dole Chadee gang murdering four members of the Baboolal family on the night of January 9, 1994, certain senior police officers were furnished with audio-tapes of telephone conversations between Chadee, Joey Ramiah and others, and the names or nicknames of the men who committed the atrocity.
The intelligence had been gathered by another agency, through wire-tapping, so the police could not use it in court. But they could have picked up the gang, grilled them, and made an early breakthrough.
Instead, they dragged their feet as if nothing had happened. At weekly National Security Council meetings, the police were always “working on it”.
It was not until the PM read the riot act to the police that in May, eleven murderers were arrested, charged, and later, nine were tried, convicted and hanged.
That is an example of the yawning gap between gathering intelligence and using it to arrest crime and bring criminals to justice.
The SSA peeping up people’s orifices won’t help: an overhaul of the culture in the Police Service might.