Why Guyana – with all of its problems and urgent needs – would have required a National Intelligence Centre (NIC) is quite a mystery which neither the government nor the NIC has explained to the public. For 44 of its years of independence there was no such facility in Guyana although intelligence functions would have been carried out by various specialized units within the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Force. Indeed, it was the former which first blew the lid on the activities of the phantom gang of drug lord Mr Roger Khan only for the government to shut down the operation and install its handpicked officers in the unit who then let loose an orgy of torture and violence.
A specialized intelligence agency could be useful to Guyana but in the hands of the present administration it is a weapon that can be put to all manner of perverse activities such as spying on opponents and using information to coerce action in many ways. Under the complete control of the Office of the President as revealed on Friday by the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Luncheon it will have no credibility and will be viewed by the public with well-founded skepticism and trepidation.
There are two issues surrounding the NIC which Stabroek News has been interested in for many months and has attempted to elucidate. The first is that an NIC must have some structure, terms of reference and be answerable and accountable to the public. This has never been explained to the public even though the NIC has been on the agenda since 2010 and funded to the extent of hundreds of millions of dollars. It must have some head who possesses relevant and recognizable qualifications for the post. That Dr Luncheon was unable to answer the question on Friday as to who is running the body exposes the shadowy nature of this operation and why it should be brought immediately to heel by Parliament. A truly national intelligence unit should not be solely under the control of the executive or any one branch of government for the very reason that it can be subverted and employed for improper uses.
To enable checks and balances it should be headed by someone in whom there is a certain confidence of integrity and professionalism and that person and his staff should be accountable to a governing body of security-cleared persons from several sectors of society which should then come under the oversight of a parliamentary committee. Nothing like this exists at the moment. The grey surrounding this body must be dispelled immediately, particularly in light of the present acrimonious climate that has gripped the country following the general elections last year.
The second concern relates to accountability for its work and the budgetary provisions in its control. In December 2010, the sum of $224.6M in supplementary provisions was voted for the NIC for security and ICT equipment.
During the debate on the supplementary provisions, then Opposition Leader Mr Robert Corbin queried why the government needed an additional $224.6M when the original amount stated in the budget was $14.5M. He asked when it had been determined that this additional sum was required and whether there had been a deliberate attempt to mislead the House earlier in the year.
In response, then Minister within the Finance Minis-try, Ms Jennifer Webster said that there was no attempt to mislead the National Assembly and that the additional expenditure was for the expansion of a particular programme.
She disclosed that the government planned to install Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Systems around the city and on the main highways. This, she said, was being done to protect infrastructure in these areas and that the project fell under the purview of the Office of the President.
This was 2010. It is unclear how much was used by the NIC in 2011 and how much was eventually voted this year but surely there should have been some accounting for the hundreds of millions of dollars entrusted to it. Who will provide that accounting and is the recently confirmed Auditor General even interested in matters like these? Accounting for these monies cannot be left to the Office of the President. Taxpayers’ money is serious money and it must come with a detailed breakdown and supporting documents whether it be for a bridge across Vlissengen Road or for the NIC. The public would surely like to know who will provide the answers.
And what about the work programme of the NIC? One of its inscribed functions would have been to monitor footage of CCTV cameras which the government installed throughout the city beginning in August of 2011. As we have asked before, what is the quality of footage being received from these cameras, how secure are their transmitting infrastructure, who has been monitoring that footage, how is it being stored, for what purpose will the footage be used, who authorizes the use of the footage for any purpose and under what law, Has the footage been used to solve any case? Stabroek News has attempted to elicit answers to these very basic but vital accountability questions for many months from both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Office of the President to no avail. That mask of impenetrability could hide two things, neither of them pleasant. The first is that the Centre isn’t operating with any type of order and framework i.e. cameras might be delivering poor images, might have broken down, footage has been corrupted and lost etc. Indeed, given the state that the NIC was found in during a recent visit one could well surmise that there is very little occurring here. Our legislators and watchdogs should be very interested in what has been happening in this building. Second, the NIC may be operating solely in the partisan interests of the government and snooping on the opposition and vocal critics. Indeed, during the election campaign last year November, Home Affairs Minister, Mr Clement Rohee and PPP campaign manager, Mr Robert Persaud at a PPP press conference referred to CCTV cameras picking up the desecration of PPP billboards and Mr Persaud called for the police to review the images for the possible laying of charges. That was an example of the intended private use of the images. Since that incident there has been no further word from any official of the government or the NIC about the images and their use. That is unacceptable and should again be of interest to the watchdogs and legislators.
Perhaps as a means of covering the failures and inadequacies of the NIC, Dr Luncheon at Thursday’s press conference made the most incredible claim that its programme had been hampered by the opposition-engineered budget cuts this year. Anyone believing that would believe that Guyana would be exporting oil tomorrow. None of the budget cuts have worked. The OP contract employees are all in their cushy jobs and NCN continues in its ways unrestrained. What has the centre been engaged in since 2010 and when will the public be told by those who are in charge of it? Why is it in the probe of high-profile crimes such as the execution-style killings of Messrs Rodrigues and Osborne the cameras never came into play. Shouldn’t the NIC be picking up information on narcotics exports rather than Guyana being embarrassed in places like Malaysia? And does it have any intelligence on this shocking gold heist in Curacao?
President Ramotar should advise himself on the workings of the NIC and ensure that there is full accountability and transparency.