PM on SSA changes: Government acted on police information

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley – File photo

THE Prime Minister said the decision to send Strategic Services Agency (SSA) director Major Roger Best on administrative leave and undertake a review of the agency’s operations was based on information the Government received from the police.

Dr Rowley made this disclosure to the media following the opening of the new Diego Martin public library on March 4.

A statement on Sunday from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) said, “The National Security Council (NSC) has recommended to the Cabinet that the head of the SSA be replaced immediately and that new leadership and management be installed with despatch.”

Dr Rowley is the chairman of the NSC and head of the Cabinet.

The OPM added, “This recommendation has been effected and as of Saturday March 2 the head of the SSA (Best) has been sent on administrative leave.”

Best was appointed in July 2019 on a three-year contract.

He was unavailable for comment.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ambassador to Washington, DC, Brig-Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer, was recalled on March 2 and appointed acting SSA director by President Christine Kangaloo .

The OPM said Phillips-Spencer is initiating an extensive review and audit of all personnel, equipment and processes in the SSA.

The OPM gave no further details in its statement.

Rowley said, “The Government acted on information from the police. I say no more.”

He was asked whether a police presence at Knowsley Building in Port of Spain on Sunday was related to the Government’s decision. The SSA’s office is located there.

Rowley replied, “It was all part of the response and the remit to the information being taken by the police.”

Contrary to claims made by the Opposition UNC and other people, Rowley said nothing was removed from the SSA’s office.

He added that additional security was put in in place there to secure the SSA’s premises and everything that is there.

Rowley reminded the media that Phillips-Spencer was appointed to act as SSA head on Saturday and the agency continues to function.

He also reiterated that Best was sent on administrative leave and has not been replaced.

Rowley could not say whether or not there would be any other personnel changes at the SSA.

Referring to claims made by the UNC and other people about the review of operations at the SSA being related to Government spying on people or intercepting communications without the knowledge of people, Rowley said, “I heard some conversations from persons trying to stir up discord.”

Under the Interception of Communications Act, the SSA director, police commissioner and TT Defence Force chief of staff are the only three people who can legally authorise the interception of communications.

With respect to this matter, Rowley said, “The SSA has a wider function. Interception is only one. I have heard a lot of comments, That (interception of communications) is not the main issue. There are other issues.”

Rowley did not elaborate on what those issues were.

The SSA Act defines the agency’s mission as contributing to the security of TT and its people, “creating and delivering the highest quality intelligence, operational support and training products and services to our local and international partners to detect, pre-empt, disrupt and dismantle current and emerging threats.”

In the SSA’s last annual report, submitted to Parliament in 2021, Best underscored the agency’s commitment to its mission.

“With great power comes greater responsibility and we are committed to acting within the letter of the law, with integrity. Integrity being one of our core values, we have also pledged to transparency.”

In the report, Best outlined the SSA’s strategic plan for 2019-2023.

The main priorities were detecting and preventing serious crime, achieving operational excellence, building organisational capacity and creating social and economic value.

The report identified the SSA’s investigations department, Invessa, as its liaison with the police “to provide assistance in linking intelligence to evidence and to support the agency in its collection of intelligence and other data.”

The operations of Invessa resulted in the ability of the police to arrest and charge 12 people, seize 8.23 kg of marijuana, seize eight firearms, seize 1,679 rounds of ammunition and disrupt 18 threats to life/robberies in 2021.

The SSA also spoke about the continued challenges posed by criminal gangs in its 2021 report.

It noted a sharp increase in criminal activity in November 2021, when a state of emergency (SoE) implemented to reduce the spread of the covid19 virus was lifted.

The SSA also expressed concern in the report about the continued arrival of illegal firearms and ammunition in TT, leading to the compromised integrity of several state employees including police, Customs, Coast Guard and prisons officers

“The majority of medium threat ratings coupled with the decline in economic activity throughout the country could inspire new forms of criminality based on survival. These issues provide the foundation and negative outlook for the threat environment in 2022.”

But the 2021 report does not show any evidence advanced by the SSA that it was having any difficulties in undertaking its mandate.

In its 2018 report, the SSA identified financial constraints, increase in gang-related crime, terrorism, serious crime, narcotics trading and a high murder rate as its main challenges then.

At that time, the SSA said it addressed those challenges with “confidence and critical thought.”

In the 2023/2024 budget, the SSA received an allocation of $270 million. In the budget debate in the House last year, UNC Naparima MP Rodney Charles questioned the rationale for this allocation by arguing that the agency had demonstrated no successes to warrant such an allocation.

Rowley has publicly denied UNC allegations of political interference in the SSA.

At a PNM public meeting in Diego Martin in April 2022, he rejected claims by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar about Government’s using the SSA to spy on its political opponents.

She claimed then the Government was spying on rival politicians, its own members, the Judiciary, business people, trade unionists and the media.

Rowley said, “That spying story is all rubbish fed into the ear of a willing participant.”

The SSA was also in the spotlight in 2011, under the UNC-led People’s Partnership coalition government, when a junior technician, Reshmi Ramnarine, was appointed its director.

Public outrage over her appointment led Ramnarine to resign shortly afterwards.

Rowley, who was opposition leader then, made similar allegations to Persad-Bissessar about government spying on people it considered its enemies.

Persad-Bissessar admitted Ramnarine’s appointment was one of her biggest mistakes as prime minister.

“There may have been others. At the time it seemed like the best thing to do. I can’t go into all of those reasons at this point in time. I think it was a mistake. I did say it was a mistake but I will not make another one like that.