'At last we can take on the gangs'
Detectives welcome a new weapon, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's Surveillance Bill which gives gardai sweeping new powers to spy on crime figures and use bugging evidence in court
By JIM CUSACK
Sunday April 19 2009
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's new Surveillance Bill has been warmly welcomed by frontline detectives who say it will play havoc with Ireland's organised criminals.
They have also congratulated him on his proposal to hear organised crime cases in the juryless Special Criminal Court and create the offence of membership of a criminal gang.
"Good man, Dermot," one said. "We definitely need this."
Garda surveillance techniques have advanced rapidly in recent years and some of the biggest drugs seizures and the arrests of major criminals in the past two years have stemmed from electronic surveillance of mobile phones.
The highly secret surveillance work leading to arrests has been one of the main reasons behind the paranoia instilled in Dublin gangsters, sparking a spate of tit-for-tat killings because they suspect that gang members have been informing to gardai, according to senior sources.
One of the officers involved said the work being carried out by the gardai is "years and years" ahead of the apparently complicated and highly technical work seen in the American television series, The Wire, based around the surveillance work carried out on a drugs gang by the Baltimore police.
The successes have led to the promotion of two of the youngest superintendents in the history of the force because of their work in identifying and tracking down major criminals. Both have been at the forefront of developing the surveillance techniques from Garda Headquarters.
The Crime and Security Section in the Phoenix Park has also trained up experienced detectives throughout Dublin and around the country and, according to sources, the surveillance work has been playing a part in disrupting the activities of major gangs.
Detectives have been waiting for years for the Government to allow electronic intercepts of criminal conversations to be used in evidence.
The Criminal Justice Surveillance Bill is a highly technical piece of legislation, but is expected to come before the Dail quite quickly and could be in place by the end of the year. Under its terms, Ireland will follow other countries which allow legally enacted electronic intercepts to be admitted as evidence in criminal trials.
Britain started allowing bugged conversations to be used in evidence in recent years, whereas it has been on the statute books in the United States for decades.
The criminals have been taking counter measures to try to prevent surveillance by using multiple mobile phones and UK and continental European SIM cards, but all of these can be breached by surveillance equipment in the possession of the gardai. They can also insert bugs into vehicles or everyday domestic items in houses or premises used by criminals.
There have been massive advances in electronic surveillance since the September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks in the United States. The National Security Agency in the US and other countries, particularly Israel, have spent billions advancing the sophistication of surveillance equipment and techniques.
After 9/11, the US introduced the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act which allows investigators to listen to "real-time" conversations on mobile phones, an ability the gardai now also have.
They also have speech-to-text software which allows computer analysis on the content and locations of calls. They can also remotely activate microphones in mobile phones which allows them to listen to conversations taking place in the audible radius of the phones even if they are turned off.
Until now, gardai have only been allowed to use these techniques and equipment to gather intelligence. However, with the passing of the Surveillance Act they will be able to use the bugged conversations in evidence.
Mr Ahern is also moving on separate proposals, advocated for a number of years by this newspaper, to create a new offence of membership of a crime gang. He is also supportive of the use of the non-jury Special Criminal Court for hearing organised crime cases, also advocated by the Sunday Independent.
This will help overcome the issue of juries being intimidated by the gangs who have been ruthlessly threatening and attacking witnesses as well. In one case last year, 12 witnesses were intimidated and there have been suspicions of jury tampering in several cases in recent years.
Convictions of gang membership may also be secured using evidence gathered using covert surveillance. This would be supported by senior members of the gardai who would take the witness stand and swear under oath that they have reason to believe an accused is a member of a particular crime gang.
If civilian witnesses were available to give evidence, it would strengthen a case. But prosecutions could still be secured without the need for such evidence.
The minister's proposals were welcomed by Fine Gael . Limerick East TD Kieran O'Donnell who called for the legislation to be brought immediately before the Dail.
"This urgent legislation must be debated in the Dail next week, and not at some distant stage in the future," he said. "Innocent lives are being lost every week. The new specific offence of gangland membership must also be introduced immediately.
"I have tabled a Dail Question to Mr Ahern on this matter, with specific reference to combating gangland crime in my constituency of Limerick city. I will be raising this matter in the Dail on Wednesday."
He added: "The people of Limerick are demanding that strong measures are put in place immediately by the Government to combat gang crime and prevent a recurrence of the tragedy that befell Roy Collins."
Launching the bill last week, Mr Ahern said: "With the advent of better and increasingly sophisticated surveillance-gathering technology, and the growing ruthless nature of gangland criminals in particular, the stage has been reached where surveillance evidence can play a crucial role in the fight against crime.
"We live in a modern world and if covert recordings will help nail crime gang bosses then we must advance this new law as quickly as feasible."
- JIM CUSACK