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Saturday, March 25, 2006
The 'conversation'
Stabroek News

The nation has been riveted this week by details of a telephone conversation between Police Commis-sioner Winston Felix and PNCR Parliamentarian Basil Williams, which was clearly obtained by means of some illegal listening device. Neither the Commissioner nor Mr Williams have acknowledged that theirs are the voices on the recording, although they haven't denied it either. As such, therefore, the presumption is that they are the parties involved.

Any cursory trawl of the internet will reveal that devices for tapping phones and bugging offices are relatively easily obtained. Where telephones are concerned, there are, for example, direct line taps, involving either a direct electrical connection to a telephone line, or a coil placed on the line to pick up the signal indirectly; or radio taps which can be fitted to the phone inside a house or office, or outside on the phone line itself. The latter, says Wikipedia, are maintenance free and only transmit when there is a call in progress.

In the case of mobile phones, there is equipment available to track location, and even to decrypt cell-phone communications so they too can be monitored. It will be recalled that a few years ago such locational equipment was seized at Good Hope, although this newspaper was never able to establish what happened to it thereafter. And of course, it doesn't stop there; there are a host of other bugs and listening devices which can be installed in everyday equipment - including telephones - to pick up conversations in a room or a car or wherever.

The public does not know whether the conversation in question involved a landline, a mobile or both. And if it is a landline, neither has any indication been given as to whether from the Commissioner's side this conversation (assuming there was only one, and the recording is not a combination of snippets from several conversations) involved his home or his office. Whatever the case, one hopes that with some technical help the police have gone on a grand sweep, both of Mr Felix's house, his office and the telephone lines in the area to try and locate the listening and recording device in question.

It is not just in the case of the Commissioner that this will have to be done, but also where the senior officers of the army and the government are concerned. If it was so easy to bug the official in charge of this country's security, why should whoever did it have stopped there? In fact, the government will probably have to entertain hiring the services of a company which specializes in technical surveillance counter-measures, not just to sweep certain sites, but to advise on electronic security in general.

As various commentators have already observed, the implications of this extraordinary breach of security - for that is what it is - are enormous. In the first place it means that no one is safe, and more particularly, potentially nothing, but nothing, is secret in this country - and make no mistake, there can be no effective governance in such an atmosphere. In the second place, a recording of this kind released into the public arena serves to intimidate all public officials, who will not be sure exactly what they might have said which could have been caught on tape. This is quite apart from the possibility that recordings could be actively used to blackmail them.

Which brings us to the issue of who would have an interest, firstly, in tapping the Commissioner's phone - and perhaps even others - and secondly, in making the recording public. The first very obvious thing to be said is that the target is clearly the Commissioner, and not Mr Williams. Perhaps Mr Felix can take some consolation in the fact that the recording was made public, since there is the possibility this might suggest that the perpetrator did not think there was anything to be gained from trying to blackmail him directly with it.

The second very obvious comment to make is that since wire-tapping, bugging, etc, are illegal in any case, and law-abiding citizens would have no reason to tap the Commissioner's phone and presumably the government, is ruled out, it must be some major criminal enterprise which is responsible. It can't even be laid at the door of the average criminal gang which would lack both the organization, the know-how and the resources to pull off something as sophisticated as that. And if we are talking about a sophisticated criminal organization, then the conclusion would have to be that a narco-trafficking group is involved.

But what exactly is such an enterprise trying to achieve? There are two possibilities: either it is attempting to pressurise Mr Felix to desist from or even commit to some course of action, or else it is trying to secure his removal. The likelihood is that it is the latter, since he could hardly be seen to change direction on any high-profile case - and one assumes this must involve some high-profile matter(s) - at this point without inviting a great deal of public suspicion, and one assumes the perpetrators would have calculated for that.

Having said that, however, there is always the possibility that they have not calculated fully rationally, and that this recording is a warning to Mr Felix if he does not change his ways, there will be more revelations coming down the line. If that is so and they are of the same character as the present one, they will have a diminished impact, and are likely to be counter-productive from the perpetrators' point of view.

From a rational standpoint, the odds are that the recording was intended to discredit the Commissioner sufficiently so that he would be pushed into resigning - or even, perhaps, to secure his removal. It might be noted that the latter under the constitution is a fairly complicated process involving the setting up of a tribunal to recommend such action to the President.

In any case, the grounds for removal other than physical or mental incapacity would have to be misbehaviour, and whatever else is said about the recording, there is no evidence of actual misbehaviour on the part of the Commissioner of Police. He was certainly very indiscreet, but since no breach of the law appears to be indicated, as he himself has said, on this occasion he should not be judged on what was essentially a private conversation.

On Tuesday Minister of Home Affairs Gail Teixeira said the government was studying the content of the recording. One hopes they do not waste too much time doing that, and instead concentrate on the breach of security and related matters. If, for example, they got themselves off-track, and pushed for Mr Felix to resign, they would be handing a victory to the criminal underworld, and inadvertently sending out the erroneous message to the public that they themselves are afraid of the subterranean forces in this society.

The very least that can be said about this situation is that Mr Felix appears to be doing something right in the law enforcement department if there are those around who are prepared to go to these lengths to besmirch him. As such, therefore, all senior officials should close ranks, and offer the Commissioner of Police their public support, beginning with the President and Minister of Home Affairs. No democratic society should allow itself to be held hostage to what is a form of blackmail emanating from what can only be criminal quarters.