Behind the shadows of the SSA

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Lance Selman, the first director of the Strategic Services Agency. –

The operations of the Strategic Services Agency, a key tool in the fight against crime, terrorism and drug trafficking, have been catapulted into the spotlight after the Prime Minister made startling claims of the agency being infiltrated by a cult which was stockpiling weapons and ammunition on a mission to overthrow the government.

The claims against the personnel of the usually clandestine agency threaten to erode public trust and confidence and destroy the working relationships with international agencies.

Newsday editor Darren Bahaw contacted the first director of the organisation retired deputy commissioner of police Lance Selman to solicit his views on the purpose of the agency and how he felt about the claims made by the Prime Minister in Parliament on July 3.

Selman, 84, who severed for three years from 1996-1999 had this to say:

Purpose of the SSA

The Strategic Services Agency (SSA) was originally established by Act No. 24 of 1995.

The mid-nineties was the period in which the crime of illegal trafficking in drugs, particularly cocaine, in this part of the world had become a huge problem internationally and was spreading rapidly.

Illegal drug trafficking introduced many new elements to the crime challenge: it was a cross-border crime which required an unprecedented number of clandestine-type actions and structures.

For example, laboratories in Central and South America require chemicals and like specialists: clandestine laboratories, transport of the product over land, then across the sea, stopping at several ports, in-country contacts and organisations to ensure undetected passage.

The organisations needed attorneys and accountants to advise on money laundering methodologies, Customs contacts, immigration contacts to facilitate people/courier movements, et al, airport staff, airline staff and political contacts etc.

Violence increased, guns became currency and so on. All this meant that a growing number of departments and officials had to be brought on board. The international community approach was to encourage and urge countries to develop specific structures and a comprehensive coordinated plan to address the problem.

This new and complex crime required several new approaches, including the cooperation of banks and the sensitisation of the Judiciary.

The foregoing is just a sample of the activities involved and the government action required to combat it.

For uniformity of action and exchange of ideas, governments were urged to sign and ratify conventions (such as the 1988 Vienna Convention) to establish new institutions and agree to regular evaluations as well as develop specific anti-trafficking country plans for implementation.

The SSA was established to monitor the country’s overall plan and provide assistance and support as necessary for the effective implementation of that plan.

Also to liaise with friendly countries to contribute to the successful implementation of the drug supply reduction plan. Note that this does not include the drug demand reduction side.

Design and staffing

The director had full autonomy to engage staff and enter into contracts. We looked at some of the skills and disciplines needed and brought on those skills and competencies. There were several ways in which staff was engaged.

Some of the personnel required were immigration officers, attorneys, criminologists, administration, financial management, statisticians, librarians, police and military. The military could simply be assigned. Public servants had to be seconded to join the organisation. Others were hired under our terms and conditions in keeping with the human resource procedure.

We also hired a firm for team-building and organisational culture building. This was not going to be an outpost of the police, military, or immigration. The SSA was to develop its own culture. We spent time and money on the objective of culture and team building. The staff responded very well.

Major achievements

Assisted police with complex drug cases.

Established productive relationships with international partners.

Established good working relationships with the banking community. There was no Financial Intelligence Unit then.

Established a useful relationship with the country’s drug liaison attaches.

Current controversy

Asked his views of the SSA under his successors?

No comment. I did not follow activities after I demitted office.

Asked his views on the current state of SSA?

Given that they are under audit I prefer not to comment at this time.

Are intelligence agencies working together at an optimum? Any advice to policymakers?

Given the significantly expanded remit of the SSA, in 2016, and its increased role in national security maintenance, matters relating to the SSA and indeed as well as the TTPS should be earmarked for early settlement.

Delay is unsettling to personnel as well as to public confidence in the national security construct. The unfolding situation suggests a lack of confidence in our ability to resolve certain challenges and a lingering dependence on external assistance.

Given the task that was assigned to me, to design and operationalise this new organisation, I considered several issues.

This was going to be one of several hundred around the world from which there were the same expectations. We were now in an international space.

This was an important element of the national security architecture.

Such entities had to contribute to public confidence in the national security arrangements. These required a public image of professionalism, competence and relevant technical knowledge and capability. Floundering was not an option.

Core elements

Four core elements were essential – the right personnel, dedication, capability and attitude were essential.

Moreover, the reality today is that crime and security issues are increasingly dependent but collaboration and sharing between states. This requires adherence to best practices in individual states. Those with weak and vulnerable architecture simply endanger the loop and will be excluded from that loop.