The peripatetic laptop

The authorities are fortunate that we don’t have any satirical news programmes here like they do in the United States, although the events of last week in Guyana might have been too overwhelming even for a redoubtable humourist like Jon Stewart. But of all the zany things which hit the headlines over the past seven days, the zaniest by far was the story of the ‘spy’ equipment which seemingly cloned itself. By the time Dr Luncheon had finished explaining to the media exactly where it (or they) was (or were) located, the reporting fraternity must have become convinced that the Office of the President had suddenly spawned its very own Government Satirist. After all, this was a case where reality was stranger than parody.

It will no doubt be recalled that the saga of the roving surveillance equipment – a laptop installed with software which could intercept and trace telephone calls from landlines and cell phones – had its origins seven years ago, when Mr Roger Khan and others were held with it by the army in a vehicle at Good Hope. It was subsequently alleged that Mr Khan used the laptop to wiretap the conversations of senior officials and others.

Exactly how Mr Khan, who now sits in a New York jail awaiting trial on drug charges, got his hands on the laptop in the first place, has never been answered. Last year, the accused’s original lawyer, Mr Simels, (who is currently being held in the US on witness tampering charges) said that his client had received permission from the Government of Guyana to purchase the equipment from the Spy Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The government wasted no time in denying this, and for his part Dr Luncheon told the media that he had never signed any document authorising Mr Khan to import the equipment, or had colluded with him to do so. While the Cabinet Secretary did not undertake any authorisation, it does not rule out the possibility that the transaction was facilitated at some other level in the administration, more particularly since it has been reported that this equipment cannot be sold to individuals, only to governments.

Mr Khan and his companions were charged following the arrest at Good Hope, but the charges were dismissed after they appeared in the Sparendaam Magistrate’s Court. It was at this point that the equipment appears to have embarked on its peregrinations. When questioned about the laptop’s whereabouts, the army responded by saying they had handed it over to the police, something one imagines would have been necessary before the case could have been brought against Mr Khan in the magistrate’s court. However, at some point thereafter the police denied all knowledge of the location of what is technically known as a ‘Portable Auto Data Processing Machine.’

Which brings us back to Dr Luncheon. Last year he too said he had no idea where the equipment was. Yet this year, Commissioner Henry Greene apparently told the President that the police had the equipment in their possession, and on the strength of that Dr Luncheon averred, “I believe in the police.” Well that must be reassuring for the police, who in the absence of information to the contrary must be assumed to have suffered an episode of amnesia, and just plum forgot where they had stashed the laptop for safekeeping. Now of course, it seems that they have inexplicably remembered where they put it.

Dr Luncheon for his part was asked a direct question about his apparent volte face on the matter of the whereabouts of the surveillance equipment by a Stabroek News reporter. “I still don’t know where it [the equipment] is,” he replied; “I know it is in the police possession. I can’t tell you where it is; I do know it is in the police possession.” And if this little semantic game wasn’t quite enough to cross a reporter’s eyes, he went on to expand on the subject: “But if the police say it is at Brickdam, Eve Leary, Kitty, there are so many places where evidence is kept so it is hard to say where it is, and I wouldn’t want to go and say it is in a certain place and somebody say, ‘heavens forbid, it is not there,’ I would just be contributing to all sorts of sensationalism.” Heaven forbid, indeed, that he should contribute to any sensationalism.

But does he seriously think that the public will accept from the Secretary to the Defence Board no less, an answer which suggests that a reporter was asking for a physical location – which the entire media knows they will not be told and neither could they reasonably expect to be told – rather than the name of the agency holding the equipment? Dr Luncheon’s pedantry which ignores the contextual nature of the English language will simply not wash on this occasion. And even if by some fluke, a reporter wanted to know where (in the geographical sense) the laptop was, there would be no reason for Dr Luncheon not to say that the police had it in their possession, but he was not going to reveal the precise location.

As we reported in our Friday edition, Stabroek News has a different understanding of the sequence of events. We understand that after the spy equipment had been confiscated from Mr Khan in the wake of his arrest, it was at a later stage returned to him, and at some point similar equipment was handed to the police which was purported to be that seized at Good Hope. There was no way, we were later informed, that the police could have established whether it worked or not and therefore was the genuine McCoy or not.

This account receives some prima facie confirmation, at least, from the fact that as we reported recently, court papers in the United States indicate that the ‘spy’ equipment which was allegedly used by Mr Khan in Guyana was among the items seized from the New York office of Mr Simels by the DEA. It had been shipped to the United States from Guyana, it appears, on or about October 11, 2007.

So who has the real equipment? The Guyana Police Force or the US authorities? It should not be difficult to establish, since the original laptop must have carried a serial number, or some equivalent identification which could be checked with the Spy Shop in Fort Lauderdale. In addition, it should be no problem for an expert to establish whether the laptop in the hands of the police is loaded with the specific software which enables the user to intercept phone calls, etc. One can only say that the police would be best advised to check the bona fides of the laptop in their possession, because before the one in the United States is produced in evidence in a court case, its provenance would have been established.

So what does Dr Luncheon think? He was asked by Stabroek News’s reporter whether he believed the equipment now in the possession of the police could have been a substitute, and he responded, “Certainly if my understanding about safeguarding the evidence trail remains applicable, it would have been identified, whether you are going to put a little scratch on it or something, but it would have been identified at the time it was seized…” However, he also said, “The whole thing that it could have been switched and all of these different things, you can’t dispense with that because apparently there is a piece of equipment that has surfaced as the seized equipment.”

But then he added, “To my mind it is only the police would be in a position to pronounce today, which they have, and to have the courts verify when it is presented as evidence that which was seized and given some way of recognition is precisely what is before the court.”

So what does he really think? Well, if this is Act II of our ongoing satirical drama, we might have to wait until Act III before he pronounces in less Delphic terms what has actually transpired. And perhaps not even then.

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