SSA fired 35 in 2017 …”$500 MILLION SPY AGENCY”

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Naparima MP Rodney Charles is advising citizens that unlike the protections which exist in most developed democracies like the UK and the US, their actions may be spied upon for political or other reasons and there is precious little that they may soon be able to do about it.

This is all part of our slow but inexorable march towards a creeping dictatorship under this Rowley administration says MP Charles.

Last December this Rowley administration quietly laid in Parliament the “Freedom of Information (exemption) Order 2017” seeking to exempt its most secretive $500 million spy agency from the application of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The UNC last Friday in the Lower House sought to annul this Order. The PNM used its majority to ensure citizens’ rights were significantly circumscribed. It now goes to the Senate for further debate.

The FOIA in Section 3, “…extends the right of members of the public to access to information in the possession of public authorities” like the SSA ……. ” limited only by exceptions necessary for the protection of essential public interest and the private and business affairs of persons in respect of whom information is collected and held by public authorities”.

In her contribution Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad Bissessar reminded the population that at the end of fiscal 2018 nearly $500 million would have been spent on this very sophisticated super-spy agency whose Director is appointed by Cabinet and who takes instructions from the Minister of National Security. He is, therefore, a political appointee reporting to politicians.

In the US, for example, the CIA’s director is nominated by the President but is subject to confirmation by the Senate ensuring the Director’s experience and qualifications become part of the public debate before selection. Not so in T & T.

The CIA acts under the direction of the National Security Council with Congressional oversight by separate committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

By contrast, all that is required here is for the minister to lay the annual audited reports of the SSA (post facto) in parliament where traditionally they are subject to very minimal scrutiny.

In the UK an Investigatory Powers Tribunal made up of legal professionals is available to investigate citizens’ complaints about intelligence agencies’ activities. The tribunal complies with the requirements of the UK Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.

In the UK there are also among other supervisory mechanisms, Independent Commissioners who monitor and supervise their intelligence services “to ensure that intelligence gathering is proportionate and not used excessively or inappropriately”. We have nothing equivalent in our country.

MP Charles sees this latest action by this PNM administration as another in a slow but very deliberate process to undermine, subvert, and compromise our independent institutions. These include the TTPS, the TTDF, the Integrity Commission and the Police Service Commission.

He notes November 2017 media reports by 35 SSA employees who were terminated. They indicated ominously of being fired because they were not sufficiently committed to this PNM administration. They accused the SSA of being used as a partisan political tool indicating also that many employees reported for work “but were given nothing to do”.

We now have, in this guava season, a $500 million spy agency under the direct control of politicians, led by a politically appointed director, and citizens will soon be deprived of the right to find out about the SSA’s hiring, promotion or dismissal policies. When this Order becomes law we will not be able to enquire how our millions are well spent in this expensive spy agency, or even salaries paid. We will not know through the FOIA whether its services are employed for legitimate intelligence gathering or to spy on political opponents.

It is not right as junior minister Fitzgerald Hinds disingenuously said in parliament Friday last that the same SSA Act applied in UNC times.

The significant difference is that considerably much larger sums are now being spent on the SSA and under this Exemption Order, citizens will no longer have access to information that is not protected for defense, law enforcement, security and other stated considerations.

Viewing all this in the context of our AGs pronouncements concerning citizens’ privacy rights, we must all be concerned that “big brother” may be watching us under this creeping PNM dictatorship.

Under existing law, the SSA can withhold responses to requests under the FOIA based on national security considerations.

Why therefore does the SSA now need a complete institutional exemption?
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