Griffith: I’m not part of SSA coup plot

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Political leader of the National Transformation Alliance Gary Griffith during a press conference at the party’s new head office in Mt Lambert on July 6. – Faith Ayoung

POLITICAL LEADER of the National Transformation Alliance (NTA) Gary Griffith believes the government is trying to implicate him in a plot to overthrow the government hatched by a cult which had control of the Strategic Services Agency (SSA).

On July 3, the Prime Minister claimed the nation’s version of the CIA was being run under the influence of a religious cult which had been stockpiling guns and over 100,000 rounds of ammunition to stage a coup.

“Several family members and associates of particular persons, and of a particular church, were found to have been surreptitiously employed in this agency. Such persons belonged to a cult which was arming itself while preaching a doctrine for trained military and paramilitary personnel with a religious calling to be the most suitable to replace the country’s political leadership. They were exerting high levels of influence on the affairs of the agency to the detriment of national security.”

At a media conference on July 6, at the party’s new headquarters in Mt Lambert, Griffith said believed Dr Rowley was making another attempt to “demonise” him. He said Rowley statement in Parliament on July 3 made several false claims against him regarding the issuance of Firearm User’s Licences (FULs) while he served as commissioner of police between August 2018 and August 2021.

Rowley said an audit into FULs for the period 2016 to 2021 revealed Griffith handed out thousands of FULs, even when police divisional heads were against it, and there was a sharp increase in import permits granted to firearm dealers.

Among other claims he said, under Griffith’s tenure from 2018 to 2021, military-type high-powered weapons were converted to fully-automatic weapons and about 100 legal guns were used to carry out crimes.

Griffith said Rowley damaged the reputation of the country when he made announcements about cults and terrorists without producing a shred of evidence. He said it was startling that such claims were being made and no one had been arrested.

He questioned why no one had been arrested for any of those illegal activities if the allegations were true. Griffith said the claims made by Rowley could sway potential investors and tourists to visit “a terrorist state.”

“If there was a coup, you have not yet called a name which means the people are still outside. Why would anyone want to come into TT if you are now admitting that there are terrorists here, there’s a coup planed, there is a plot to destabilise the country and the persons have not yet been charged? So they are walking around freely, probably still in the SSA because there could be sleeper cells there.”

Griffith questioned why Rowley allowed the SSA’s continued existence after there was proof of a cult in the form of the Jerusalem Bride Church and a planned coup when the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) was dismantled after only allegations into misdeeds were made but no one was charged.

However, in April 2021, the head of the unit, Insp Mark Hernandez, was charged with misbehaviour.

In his statement Rowley said in the midst of the ongoing audit, the “core business” of the SSA continued.

“After the initial public disclosure of these developments the primary objective is now to retool the agency and regain the public trust and the confidence of all stakeholders, both national and international.”

On the issue of Rowley calling the church a cult and including it in the plans of a coup, Griffith said “God-fearing people” were being targeted and victimised, especially as no names were called and no one was arrested or charged.

“I want to bring a very important point to TT. We are now demonising people because they go to church. That’s what we have reached to in this country. It is now being seen as a crime. We are now trying to label church-going people as a Jim Jones cult.”

Griffith denied Rowley’s claims that criminals and people involved in domestic violence matters got guns, that people admitted to paying bribes to police for FULs and that people with semi-automatic weapons converted them to fully automatic weapons.

He said if people beat the system and any of the claims were true, they should be named and charged, and the weapons seized. But, he said, that had not happened.

He added that the claim that about 100 legal firearms were involved in criminal activity was also disengenuous.

“So what you included in that 100 would have been police officers using their firearm in defence of a law-abiding citizen, using a firearm in self-defence, a security guard losing his firearm, a police officer having a negligent discharge. They packaged all that to give the impression that 100 licensed firearm owners used their weapon to kill someone or to rape someone. That is a lie.”

He said not more than five legal firearm owners had been involved with a criminal offence in the past five years while, in the last nine years, “99.9 per cent” of the 3,000 people killed were killed with illegal firearms.

Griffith said when he took office there were approximately 25,000 applications for FULs and he gave out 1,000 per year to “law -abiding citizens” and a similar number to members of the protective services. He said in the three years he was police commissioner none of those firearms were lost, stolen or used for a crime.

Instead, he was cleaning up the corruption with the FULs as officers were blackmailing or accepting bribes from applicants. He said he overrode officers who rejected FULs because, in their opinion, the people’s lives were not in danger or other reasons that were not sufficient to reject the applications.

According to Rowley, there were currently 20 police officers before the courts charged with gun-related offences.

Griffith accused Rowley of hypocrisy saying the Prime Minister and one of his ministers harassed him for favours when he was police commissioner. One was to fast-track FULs for individuals and a gun dealership in Tobago, and the other was a quarry blasting licence for a businessman.

Griffith said after three audits into the police service, no wrongdoing could be laid against him so the government was forced to “cover their embarrassment” and come up with the idea of an alleged coup plot. But they forgot the SSA had nothing to do with the police service and reported directly to the Minister of National Security and Rowley, the chair of the National Security Council.

He said the SSA was critical in the fight against crime as it provided intelligence for intelligence-driven policing, which would help in crime prevention. But admitted it did not have proper oversight by the National Security Council.

Griffith said the acting director the SSA retired brigadier general Anthony Phillips-Spencer, was a brilliant man but not suited to the position because he claimed he did not have training in intelligence gathering.

He said the National Operations Centre (NOC) was a recommendation of the commission of enquiry into the attempted 1990 coup to prevent or better handle another coup by having representatives of all the national security arms involved.

But, he said, Rowley put the asssets of the NOC solely in the hands of the SSA which, if the claims of an attempted coup by the SSA were correct, opened the way for such action.