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Intelligence and SSA 101: attorney Thane Pierre offers insight on controversial bill

National Security is the concept that the government, along with its parliament, should protect its sovereignty and its citizens. What is inherent in this concept is a belief that actions taken are necessary and justified.

Photo: Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams (left) shakes hands with US Embassy Security Policy and Assistance Coordinator, Juanita Aguirre, at the handing over ceremony of 18 forensic photography kits to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by the US. (Courtesy US Embassy)
Photo: Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams (left) shakes hands with US Embassy Security Policy and Assistance Coordinator, Juanita Aguirre, at the handing over ceremony of 18 forensic photography kits to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by the US.
(Courtesy US Embassy)

The recently concluded debate of the Strategic Services (Amendment) Act brought to the forefront a very disturbing reality.

Realistically speaking, most of the people who are entrusted to make laws to govern the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago are completely out of their depths and they are neither afraid nor ashamed to showcase this with utter contempt.

It is incumbent on legislators, to ensure that they are well-informed of the subject matter being debated—so that, when they do speak, not only would they assist the wider citizenry in understanding what the consequence of the debate is; but it would also demonstrate an ability to execute such responsibilities with distinction.

The Strategic Services Agency (SSA) has been in operation for over 21 years. Initially, the primary purpose of this Agency as outlined by the governing Act, The Strategic Services Act, speaks to Intelligence gathering as it pertains to drugs.

Photo: A hooded thug shows off his weapons. (Courtesy Wehearit.com)
Photo: A hooded thug shows off his weapons.
(Courtesy Wehearit.com)

Operationally, this Act was stretched to its limits in order to facilitate and/or justify its use in other major crimes. The rationale being that gang related violence, transhipment of arms, human trafficking, directly or indirectly, stem from or lead to drugs Therefore it is both sensible and logical to amend this act to create an all-encompassing framework which includes serious crimes.

To be pellucidly clear, the amendments debated will now allow SSA to do whatever they were doing in the past relative to drugs, for serious crimes. That is all.

There exists, not only our society, a common misconception about ‘Intelligence’. Whenever this word is mentioned in the context of National Security there seems to be an automatic reference to interception of communications, more commonly referred to as wiretapping.

Intelligence can be gathered in many ways and interception of communication is but one of the many ways that Intelligence can be gathered.

What is Intelligence? Information is gathered all the time. Intelligence however, is the next stage along the ‘processing belt’.

Photo: The game is afoot. (Copyright BBC)
Photo: The game is afoot.
(Copyright BBC)

Intelligence is information that has been analysed and refined so that it is useful in making decisions, in this context, as it relates to criminal offences, investigations and planning.

Some examples of sources of information that can become Intelligence include Crime Scene Investigations, interviews, informants, CCTV cameras, statistics, witnesses and suspects.

In the game of ‘police and thief’—or more eloquently termed, law enforcement—the element of surprise is at times fundamental, if not, absolutely indispensable.

Intelligence gathering can be for proactive use or reactive use and this creates a very fluid environment. Intelligence gathered can be for immediate, medium and or long term use.

Immediate use, usually referred to as ‘Real Time Intelligence’ involves the use of Intelligence to react to live situations. Most times, the actions taken are not reported in order to preserve confidentiality of ongoing operations.

A recent example in our jurisdiction involved the arrest of a group of men on their way to murder a DJ. That was the work of ‘Real Time Intelligence’ with proper coordination to facilitate a live operation.

Photo: DJ Lurbz (right) parties with former Sport Minister Brent Sancho.
Photo: DJ Lurbz (right) parties with former Sport Minister Brent Sancho.

However it is clear, is that there are major gaps in our Intelligence gathering and/or the coordination of Intelligence gathered and/or the transition into the operational realm.

Daylight jailbreaks, high profile murders, the proliferation of arms and ammunition and sustained gang violence are all indicative of massive Intelligence gaps.

Many are of the view that the SSA has not been performing as well as it should have been and I suspect that this view is held against the backdrop of the detection rate of serious crimes—notwithstanding the fact that SSA mandate is for drugs.

Intelligence Agencies and operatives are usually unsung heroes. The very nature of the environment requires clandestineness and confidentiality. There is a critical stage between Intelligence gathered and crime detection known as an investigation.

This lack of confidence in the SSA is baseless and one cannot look at SSA, the Intelligence Agency, in isolation. A speaker in the Senate compared the SSA to Crimestoppers. Not only is that comparison disingenuous, it is highly disrespectful and indicative of ignorance.

Photo: A police officer helps his colleague with his stripes.
Photo: A police officer helps his colleague with his stripes.

It is difficult, foolish and imprudent for SSA to give an account of what it has done, what it is doing and what it intends to do. To do so would be akin to holding transparent cards in an all fours games.

The issue of duplication and overlapping of Intelligence Agencies is a moot point. I continue to advance the position that a certain level of duplication and overlapping from the different Intelligence Agencies is acceptable and even necessary as it indirectly provides accountability.

What one agency might miss or deliberately over look, another might ‘pick up’.

With an abysmal crime detection rate and escalating criminality, it is clear that the state is failing in its ability to provide protection.

Criminality has evolved. Gone are the days when a detective’s best tactic was a skilful headlock applied to the person of interest. The police service is overburdened. It lacks both the capacity and capability to perform at the required level.

The advents of the worldwide connectivity and globalisation have made information available to persons no lesser than the criminals and they are making good use of it.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on the move during joint patrols with the police. (Copyright Baltimore Examiner)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on the move during joint patrols with the police.
(Copyright Baltimore Examiner)

Law enforcement agencies are grappling with more complex crimes such as gang related violence, terrorism, human trafficking, money laundering and other transnational crimes that require a high level of expertise.

In the not too distant past, kidnapping was a scourge on our society. The then Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago brought kidnapping down to 0%! Proper Intelligence and a highly functioning system curbed that particular crime.

In my considered opinion, the government of the day has fallen woefully short in making any significant amendment to this Act. As evident, government’s do not get the opportunity to make changes to these types of Acts very often.

In 21 years, this act has been amended once. They ought to have gone further and given this Act some more operational bite.

However, when one looks at the level of opprobrium and misinformation being propelled against this amendment bill, one can understand the Government’s hesitation to go any further.

Photo: Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.
Photo: Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.

The fact that the National Operations Centre (NOC) has been absorbed within the structure of SSA suggests that there will be an operational aspect to it. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

The Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago was disbanded in 2011. As a consequence of this wanton disaggregation of SAUTT, the National Security apparatus lost vital intellectual capacities and institutional capabilities.

In 2013, the then Government—realising that there was now a gap that needed to be filled—set about building the institution now known as NOC. Among other things, within NOC, there was a coordinating capability. This coordinating capability, though in its embryonic stage, is a valuable asset and should be developed upon and given legislative footing.

The issue of the appointment and dismissal of the Director has been and continues to be a bone of contention.

Admittedly, I do share the concerns as it pertains to the appointment of the Director and the fact that the Director is subject to the control of a cabinet minister and must inform the cabinet minister of certain actions taken.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

However, in comparing similar existing legislations—most notably, The Crime and Court Act 2013, which gives powers to the National Crime Agency in the UK—it is evident that this arrangement is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago.

The difference being, the level of professionalism and political maturity that exist in that society does not exist in Trinidad and Tobago.

It is also noteworthy to mention, that the law as it relates to the Director has existed for the past 21 years. Ideally, three Prime Ministers including the now Opposition Leader, have governed with this law in place. But only now, has it become a burning issue.

It appears that sober reflection can only take place from the opposition benches.

AboutThane J Pierre

Thane J Pierre
Thane J Pierre is an Attorney at Law with extensive experience in forensics and law enforcement.

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24 comments

  1. My question is how does the passage of the SSA legislation gel with yet to be passed Whistleblower legislation?

  2. I am very concerned that this Act of Parliament gives unfettered power and authority to the Director of the SSA without any identified medium to provide accountability or to even measure his efficiency or that of his unit. According to the Act the Director is appointed by the Minister of National Security, a partisan politician and reports only to him. This is in fact a very dangerous scenario as it could lead to a similar situation where former PM Manning was embroiled in controversy where allegations were that he used the unit to spy on political opponents, journalists and even ordinary citizens. There’s evidence the PP government also manipulated the SSA for political expediency.
    The TTPS is the premier law enforcement agency in this country and is responsible for the prevention and detection of crime, superior resources and capability is given to an external agency with no lawful remit or no identified relationship with the TTPS regarding operational issues or the sharing of intelligence. This and other relevant issues raised no flags for the analyst.
    Our vociferous AG was schooled twice recently by senior jurists on the constitutional right to privacy which is clearly embodied in the constitution yet he remains unconvinced. I am troubled that this right can be arbitrary taken away and it’s not a headline issue. An unbiased analysis of the law would compare with similar legislation in the commonwealth and in particular the UK. As far as I am aware there are no similar laws within the commonwealth without an independent oversight structure in place. In the UK for example it’s the Intelligence and Security Committee that have oversight of all intelligence agencies regarding their operational, security and intelligence issues. Our esteemed analysis describes that as absurd and akin to playing all-fours with a transparent deck.
    Finally, the SSA has shown itself to be ineffective and undisciplined. There are no major drug bust over the past 21 years of their existence that they can take credit for in spite of their vast resources and the fact that their sole responsibility over that period was to treat with the incidence of drug trafficking. Notwithstanding, the Act gives them wider powers to deal with all serious crimes and to intercept communication without a warrant.
    I eagerly awaits a declaration from the courts.

  3. My confidence is restored that out there amongst the masses there exist sober thinking individuals.

  4. Some good points in this article. Enlightening.

  5. I think what the public is worried about is the abuse of this power by those in authority for their personal use.

    • That is a fear, but how is it validated?

    • The public has lost trust in every agency. It’s like we’re only going downward in a spiral with no indication of recovery. Crime or rampant , financed by the conglomerates. What does the SSA have to show for their 21 years of existence ? Kidnapping was the biggest issue some 10 years ago. What can they say they did to help? Guns in the country more than forex, you think they don’t know who bringing it in?

  6. ,One if not the best analysis I have seen posted about the SSA BILL… Just my opinion coming from a layman.. Things to make you think…

  7. this author is a PNM stooge ?

    how could she say : ” This lack of confidence in the SSA is baseless and one cannot look at SSA, the Intelligence Agency, in isolation. A speaker in the Senate compared the SSA to Crimestoppers. Not only is that comparison disingenuous, it is highly disrespectful and indicative of ignorance. ”

    When we can say that the SSA spied on private citizens, in the public domain who were critical of Patrick Manning, with no known link to any criminal activities …
    Niki Crosbie and Errol Fabian as well as Wendell Constantine were spied upon …
    not to mention Kamla ….

    ALSO..
    the author is out-rite LYING :

    ” However, in comparing similar existing legislation—most notably, The Crime and Court Act 2013, which gives powers to the National Crime Agency in the UK—it is evident that this arrangement is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago. ”

    This is a LIE>…

    Those legislations need a WARRANT …
    the PNM’s amendment removes the need for a WARRANT ..
    and allows spying at the discretion of the head of the SSA who is a political appointee …

    THUS the legislation in T&T is UNIQUE …….

  8. I am glad that someone claiming to be from the legal fraternity has attempted to speak further on this issue. However, I am quite disappointed by the substance. I feel like a hungry man trying to eat 5 wind-pies – unsatisfied due to unfulfilled expectations and lack of required substance.

    The reason being, I was of the expectation that Mr. Pierre would have dissected the proposed sections and would have given us the legal implications of it, but this was not done. Instead, he has spoken on issues of intelligence, law enforcement, etc., that are out of his remit. Perhaps he is a Jack of all trades, and can speak authoritatively on various issues.

    Not wanting to be long, I will make my points in bullets format:

    1. the issue was never about the need for intelligence. It is accepted that there should be intelligence gathering from SIG_INT, HUM-INT etc.

    2. The AG has admitted that this agency has been acting illegally for years by not functioning within its remit. How many major drug cases have been successfully prosecuted with the assistance of the SSA?
    By giving it more powers without checks and balances, what would it do?

    3. What exactly did SAUTT do to reduce the kidnappings? Were people persecuted or prosecuted? Did the then PM make a deal with the persons who were kidnapping to give them State contracts if they stopped?
    what was the budget of SAUTT. Was the Director able to give himself a raise ‘every Monday morning’? Was SAUTT a legal entity Mr. Lawyer? There were no checks and balances in SAUTT; they answered to the Minister of Nat Sec and the PM alone! They did whatever they wanted to with billions of dollars. Have they found the excavator that was stolen from their compound in Cumoto as yet?

    4. Why wasn’t SAUTT able to reduce the murders which escalated during the same period that kidnappings went down. Were the kidnappers murdered, without a fair hearing Mr. Lawyer? Kidnappings down – murders up, hmm,,, what is the link hereeee, I wooonderr, hmm.

    5. Do you have evidence that it was the SSA who led to the prevention of the ‘hit’ of the DJ? Have you discounted Police sources on the ground?

    Trust me, I can go on and on, critiquing every line of this article, but I prefer not too.

    From early on, I realized the slant being taken by this writer and his purpose for writing. Nonetheless, I commend him for an interesting piece, and for stating that there is a need for caution due to the distrust persons have with politicians and their perceived immaturity.

    Please continue writing, and perhaps next time we can read on the legal implications of issues you raise in the future.

  9. Was this an analysis/dissection of the Act/Bill or a justification for the necessity of the SSA itself? Didn’t see sections of the Act identified and the possible legal implications of these sections (eg separaton of powers) or the effects (if any), on the rights of citizens.

    Also did not see how the Act marries with the other existing Acts associated with the SSA and intelligence gathering.

  10. Politics is a destructive thing smh.

  11. I like Thane Pierre treatment of this issue. Its clear persons aren’t debating the amendments but other issues that have existed since the Parent Act. I’m interested to find out how “far” Thane might have wanted the amendments to go. I’m thinking that SAUTT was quite effective with existing legislation and as such I evoke Raffique Shah’s treatment of this issue that suggested Intel wouldn’t lead to much action (detection) for various reasons one being a deficiency in the ops. arm of the crime fighting framework. On that note I’m appreciative of Thane’s observation that NOC has been place under the SSA and the consequent suggestion that SSA may take on more of an ops. function. There is a line in the piece that suggests that detective work has evolved from headlocks to Intel, might I suggest that historically the best detective work relied heavily on the community which is in fact as Thane pointed out Intel

    • Thane suggested too that we are thinking in terms of electronic snooping and that might be simplifying things.
      Is using community information a part of the plan?
      Or they plan to bypass that and simply snoop on community?

    • TTPS talks a lot about partnering with the community. The extent of such is yet to be interrogated. But again Raffique’s point is instructive how does TTPS Intel and SSA work together to lead to action. I am praying its not simply the latter. I would like to hear a lawyer’s take on the combination of the SSA Act and the real Spy Bill, the Interception of Communication Act, and if such combination gives the SSA too much power. From my understanding the latter Act allows the Director to snoop without a warrant if s/he doesn’t intend to use the Info…Intel as evidence in the courts.

    • Sigh. I will await the eventual leak on how the police actually uses these powers.
      I pray it really is for crime fighting.

      • Lasana, please note that the Security agencies ‘spy’ on us all of the time. ONLY when they need to take evidence before the court, do they seek a warrant. Otherwise, it is a ‘free-for-all’.

        People blame the Police, and indeed there is blame to be had by the Police, but persons are not aware that in T& there are several intelligence agencies and they do not share that info to the Police. This hoarding of info is heavily politically tainted.

    • What leak? The Act refer to the SSA and it’s director with certain vested authority but is very silent on how the information would be disseminated and doesn’t not identify a formal relationship between the SSA and the TTPS.

    • And those are the gap issues aren’t they?