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Uncertainty, confusion at SSA as New security agency not yet legal
The new lead national security agency, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), is nowhere near operational mode, as is being touted by government officials. In fact, legislation which will see the NIA legalised is yet to be drafted. The start of the NIA’s operations has been pushed back on more than one occasion and the agency has seen two directors come and go even before it was officially established.
Months after assuming office, the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led administration described the NIA as an intelligence agency which would assist in combatting crime. Now, two years into the Government’s term, the agency is yet to receive legal standing.
Meanwhile, its sister entity, the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), has been receiving increased funding. In the 2013 budget, the SSA received an allocation of $107.6 million, according to the Draft Estimates of Recurrent Expenditure—an increase of $77.3 million over the 2012 allocation of $30.3 million.
Currently, the SSA is undergoing structural changes and is headed by Bisnath Maharaj, who assumed the post in April this year. Maharaj, sources say, has a law degree from Staffordshire University, England, and was recently called to the Bar in T&T. He is expected to complete his master’s degree in law next March.
Maharaj is currently on a one-year contract, having taken over from Gary Griffith, whose contract was not renewed. With the start of operations at NIA still in abeyance, sources say operations at the SSA remain strained, since it is unclear under whose portfolio SSA falls.
Sources said former National Security Minister Brig John Sandy and then SSA interim director Griffith were being undermined by a senior government official who was not affiliated with the security ministry. Sources further allege that SSA deputy director Browne would report directly to the senior official, thus bypassing Griffith, and now Maharaj.
“This ongoing relationship completely undermines the authority of the director of the SSA or the new director general of the NIA, as this person is unable to control the flow of information that passes from Browne to (official’s name called). The source said it was “one that cripples the decision-making of the director or director general, as he is placed in an uncomfortable position.”
The source expressed concern that Julie Browne was nominated by the government official to be part of the steering committee, and remained on the committee after the Reshmi Ramnarine fiasco last year, in which it was revealed that Browne wrote to Persad-Bissessar recommending Ramnarine for the post of SSA director.
It was later discovered that Ramnarine had falsified her educational records, and she resigned from the position nine days after being appointed.
AG mum on SSA interference
Contacted on the matter, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said his ministry was still in the process of drafting legislation for the NIA. “We can only draft legislation when we have the necessary framework in place,” Ramlogan said, adding that the matter is a priority for the Ministry of National Security.
He said he did not know how long the drafting would take. Asked about his relationship with Browne, Ramlogan said she did not report to him. Referring to an incident earlier this year in which training for the software system known as Verint (analytic software and hardware for security and surveillance) was used by trainees and ordered shut down by him, the AG was asked why he would make such an order, since SSA falls under the ambit of National Security.
He was also asked why he would authorise Browne to handpick those being trained. His response was: “Those are all matters which deal with national security affairs of the State and therefore they are not matters that one can properly respond to, because they will violate the code of conduct of the security council.”
The Sunday Guardian then asked Ramlogan why he nominated Browne to sit on the steering committee. The AG said it was the Prime Minister who made the appointments to the committee. He was told that information revealed he was the one who nominated Browne to the Prime Minister and it was this nomination which led to Browne’s appointment.
He replied, “Those are high-level appointments that can’t be announced. To go further into details will not happen under any administration, because it is simply not right to make such information known. National security is a sensitive area in any country and government.”
Given that Browne was the one who reportedly nominated Ramnarine as SSA director, and the backlash from such a move caused a major furore and raised questions about the integrity of national security, Ramlogan was asked why Browne was not removed from the committee.
The AG said, “I don’t know where you got that (Browne recommended Ramnarine).” The AG was then reminded that Persad-Bissessar had announced that she acted on Browne’s recommendation, to which he said, “Even so, I cannot comment on that.”
Nevertheless, Ramlogan commented that unlike the previous administration, appointments to Sautt and the SSA under this administration were not cloaked in secrecy. “They are more transparent than ever before. We are very open about what we do,” Ramlogan said.
Griffith: Transition from SSA to NIA at delicate stage
Speaking with the Sunday Guardian on Friday afternoon, security adviser to the PM Gary Griffith said the transition from the SSA to NIA was at a “delicate stage.” Asked whether the SSA was under the purview of the Office of the AG, Griffith said no. “It’s under the umbrella of the Ministry of National Security,” he said.
Griffith said the “few good aspects” of Sautt would be incorporated into the NIA. He dismissed the suggestion that NIA is a duplicate of Sautt under another name.
Next week Part 2
What exactly are the functions of the National Intelligence Agency and what does the Steering Committee report contain?
Why the NIA?
The NIA’s predecessor, the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA), along with the now defunct Special Anti Crime Unit (Sautt), is being merged with the SSA to form the NIA. The establishment of the NIA, according to the report, “will be more cost-effective and will be designed to obtain better results.”
So far, Cabinet has agreed that the NIA will be headed by a director general who will be assisted by a deputy director general and an appropriate number of directors and other support staff.
The NIA, according to the report, is to be established by an act of Parliament before starting full operations, which was scheduled for September 1, 2011. However, in order to facilitate the formation of the NIA, Parliament will need to abolish the SSA, and the act that created this agency “should be repealed and replaced by the National Intelligence Agency Act,” the report said.
This is yet to be done, despite assurances that NIA would be operational by August this year. Last year, a 67-page report submitted to Cabinet outlined how the agency should be structured and function. The report was commissioned by a steering committee appointed by the Prime Minister and led by acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams.
The committee comprised Prof Daniel Gibran, former director of the SSA Col Albert Griffith, deputy director of the SSA Julie Browne, and former permanent secretary Jacqui Wilson. The committee was mandated in 2010 to come up with a plan to restructure Sautt.
The report and its recommendations were submitted to Cabinet and certain aspects were approved. During its tenure, the committee met with local law-enforcement officials and other stakeholders, as well as United States Embassy officials to hear their views and consider their offer of assistance to the Government of T&T.
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