JUSTICE Minister Michael McDowell yesterday refused to reveal the number of phones taps he has authorised during his time in office.
Although bugged phone conversations cannot be used as evidence in court, they can be used by gardai to gather intelligence on suspects.
In response to a Dail question, Mr McDowell said it would be contrary to the public interest to reveal how many phone taps had been approved by his department, or what categories of people were being targeted.
But Fine Gael TD Paul McGrath raised concerns about the possible inappropriate use of phone taps without the public’sknowledge.
“Wouldn’t it be a surprise, or maybe not such a surprise, if it included journalists or politicians, a number of subversives or illegal immigrants? We’re not a police state. We should have more information.”
In Britain, the statistics on phone tapping are revealed annually by an eavesdropping watchdog, the Interception of Communications Commissioner.
There were 2,243 phone tap warrants issued there last year. This included 66 mistakes, in which security services were listening in to the wrong numbers.
Mr McGrath said he was very disappointed at the failure to provide basic information on the use of phone tapping here. “Surely the very least we’re entitled to know is the number of phone taps and whether this minister has increased or decreased them over the years. By covering up and not releasing some of the information I asked for, it leaves it open to suspicion,” he said.
He added: “From what I hear among journalists, there’s a real suspicion that a number of them have their phones tapped.”
The civil liberties group Digital Rights Ireland said that Mr McDowell’s reason for withholding the information was unacceptable.
“It’s been perfectly possible to do this in England in detail with no threat to the public interest or national security. So that justification just doesn’t hold water,” said chairman TJ McIntyre.
There was a designated judge who issued a report on the phone tapping each year, he said. “It’s literally a one line report in which he says he has reviewed the system, with no details and no indication of mistakes made or steps taken to correct them.”
There is also a complaints referee, Circuit Court Judge Carroll Moran, who people can contact.
“But the Department of Justice haven’t explained how people find out if their phone is being tapped. It makes a mockery of the whole system,” Mr McIntyre said.
The Department of Justice confirmed that Mr McDowell must personally approve all of the phone tapping applications, which are made to him by Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy and Defence Forces Chief of Staff Jim Sreenan.
But a spokesman said Mr McDowell would not be commenting further on his explanation that releasing the phone tapping statistics would be “contrary to the public interest”. He added that the statistics had not previously been released by the Department.