PM drops bombshell report on elite spy unit: SSA cult in coup plot

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley speaks during a recent debate in the House of Representatives. – Photo courtesy Office of the Parliament

AN AUDIT into the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), one of key weapons in the state’s arsenal in the fight against crime, found it was being run under the influence of a religious cult comprising highly-trained military operators, armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry, on a treasonous mission to overthrow the Government.

In a bombshell statement in Parliament on July 3, the head of the National Security Council (NSC), Dr Rowley, revealed for the first time details of the audit done by acting director of the SSA retired Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer, which painted an alarming state of affairs that went undetected for years under the current PNM administration.

The SSA is authorised to intercept communications, phone calls, WhatsApp, e-mails and other modes after obtaining court orders under the Interception of Communication Act. It was first established in 1995 primarily “to guide the formulation and implementation of national policies on illicit trafficking of dangerous drugs and related criminal activities.”

The role and function was expanded in 2016, under the PNM, “to act as an office for centralising information that could facilitate the detection and prevention of serious crime, for co-ordinating operations for the suppression of serious crime and for co-operating with the services or the corresponding services of other countries.”

Oropouche MP Dr Roodal Moonilal sought to raise the question of oversight of the SSA as the Prime Minister concluded his statement.

“In light of the shocking revelations and allegations made over the last 40 minutes which constitute, metaphorically and literally, gun talk, given this disaster occurred under the weekly watch of a National Security Council and the oversight of a Minister of National Security…do you now agree that the Minister of National Security (Fitzgerald Hinds) ought to be fired forthwith?”

In response, Rowley said, “Under whose watch the discovery has been made, allowing me to report it here?”

Phillips-Spencer, who was recalled as this country’s ambassador to Washington, DC, US, was appointed acting SSA director on March 2 by the President after the then director Major Roger Best was sent on administrative leave that same day on the instruction of the Prime Minister.

Rowley, using Facebook, announced the sudden shake-up of the SSA leadership without giving any details. But in a co-ordinated operation, police moved in to secure SSA assets at Knowsley, Queen’s Park West, its St Vincent Street base, another at Piarco and one at Camp Cumuto in an attempt to prevent the removal of possible evidence by those loyal to Best.

The NSC had met on May 1 to consider a mind-boggling report from Special Branch which detailed the activities of the church and its membership, which, according to Rowley “warranted an immediate intervention and the installation of new leadership at the SSA.”

Best’s removal from office took place after Rowley returned from a trip to Washington, DC, where he met with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other top US intelligence officials. At the time, Rowley cited an impending threat to national security as the reason for the decision, but did not elaborate.

Ironically, the SSA’s deputy director of intelligence, Joanne Bartholomew-Daniel, who has an intimate relationship with Best, was left on the job until March 12, when Phillips-Spencers suspended her and 11 other employees, all members of the Jerusalem Bride Church.Police are also investigating the November 11, 2023 murder of Bartholomew-Daniel’s estranged husband, Andy Daniel, and the possible use of SSA assets. Daniel was shot dead on the shoulder of the Uriah Butler Highway, south of the Caroni overpass, in a blind spot from nearby CCTV cameras.

Acting director of the SSA retired Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer. –

Phillips-Spencer also terminated a 12-member tactical response team, a highly-trained operational unit comprising former commandos. Best had headed the agency since 2019 and reported directly to the NSC and had the full confidence of Rowley, international clandestine agencies and the police. He was terminated on May 19 after he was arrested on suspicion of transferring four high-powered automatic guns to SSA employees.

Best, a pastor, had been a director of the Jerusalem Bride Church, in Malabar, Arima, since 2008 which was run by the charismatic leader, pastor Ian Albert Ezekiel Brown, and his wife Sandra Brown and their sons.

Brown, a former SRP, the SSA’s former security supervisor, Susan Portell-Griffith, and Sgt Sherwin Waldron, who was attached to the now-defunct Special Operations Response Team (SORT), appeared before Master Shabaana Shah on May 21 on gun-related charges and were released on $500,000 bail each.

They were charged with separate offences of misbehaviour in public office related to the alleged transfer and possession of four prohibited firearms and ammunition on April 29, 2021, at the SORT’s base at Camp Cumuto, Wallerfield. Waldron faces four charges andBrown and Portell-Griffith face two charges.

On May 17, the four were detained and questioned about the transfer of two Sig Sauer MPX firearms, two Sig Sauer 516 rifles with optic and an assortment of ammunition from a police armoury to the SSA.

70,000 bullets missing from SSA inventory

Many of the church members were senior defence personnel and military equipment had been used to to help construct a commune in the rural Cumuto district in preparation for the doomsday prophesied by Brown and his followers.

“The audit also found disturbing practices of nepotism and opportunism. For example, 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,” Rowley said in his 40-minute statement.

The ability of the SSA under Best’s leadership to buy over 100 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition triggered alarms for Rowley.

Knowsley, one of the main offices of the SSA, around the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain. – File photo by Angelo Marcelle

“Why would an intelligence-gathering agency need 103 firearms of different types, and calibre; and why would the agency in 2022, need 100,000 rounds of ammunition?

“Shockingly, the audit discovered that the former director of the SSA initiated the procurement of high-grade military bolt-action rifles, complete with the most modern silencers and other accessories, and the SSA was engaged in training specially selected questionably hired personnel in the skill of the use of such weapons.”

He said all of this was done illegally, as select SSA employees were only authorised by Parliament on November 1, 2023 to keep and carry pistols for their protection.

How the SSA was able to buy guns and ammunition is now subject to a criminal investigation, as well as the inability to account for 70,000 rounds of ammunition which “remains unrecorded and unaccounted for.

“This matter too, remains the subject of continuing audit and police investigation, while corrective action, in respect of the management of arms and ammunition inventory, has been taken,” Rowley said.

The corrective actions include a review of the Firearms and Ammunition Policy published in April 2022 as well as the procurement and use of vehicles, firearms and ammunition inventory checks, at all SSA locations.

Rowley said the NSC was unaware the SSA had those levels of arms and ammunition or that the SSA was actively engaged in extensive weapons training, procuring and consuming large volumes of ammunition. There was never a budget in the SSA to purchase military-grade weapons, nor was the NSC ever informed of any such activities or that such capabilities were being developed within the SSA. This did not prevent the SSA from making part-payment for military-grade weapons with suppression capabilities.

He said in 2017, the agency bought 8,000 rounds of 9 mm ammunition, but by 2022, the amount bought during that year was 100,000 rounds.

Former SSA director Roger Best. –

“While arming itself the agency did not disaggregate ammunition held for operational use from ammunition stored for the purpose of training, in accordance with international best practices. Similarly, whereas in 2016, the SSA held a mere 24 firearms, consisting of pistols or revolvers, since 2021, the number of firearms held by the SSA increased to 103, of different types and calibre, including military-grade.”

Rowley referred to the January 2021 deaths of Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris, two suspects held by SORT for the murder of magisterial court clerk Andrea Bharrat. Autopsies showed both men had been tortured to death.

SORT, a team of highly-trained operatives under the leadership of Sgt Mark Hernandez, was appointed under former commissioner of police Gary Griffith and had been successful in rescuing kidnap victims as well as detecting significant drug seizures.

Rowley said the unit was disbanded, in February 2022 after Griffith’s three-year tenure, “because it became entangled in allegations of serious human rights abuses” and exposed the Government to US sanctions.

He said the killing of the suspects in police custody had been reported by a commissioner of police, and subordinates that “persons in police custody actually died when they ‘fell off a chair.’

“Only recently this sick joke was repeated by a former commissioner of police who used the said explanation to assure the public that the unfortunates who fell off the chair ‘could never rape anybody again.’”

Rowley said several members of the SSA and former members are the subject of continued investigations by the police in respect of certain motor vehicles, currently and previously assigned to the SSA.

“Without saying much more, suffice it to say that there is much more investigative work to be done as the requisite policing agencies continue to follow the evidence. Efforts are well under way to rebuild the SSA to ensure that its core mandate is discharged and that it operates within the law in the hands of people who respect their role and appreciate their training, thereby making the rejuvenated SSA stronger, more professional and even more fit for purpose.”

Read the Prime Minister’s full statement to Parliament on the SSA here.