SSA secrets poke holes in spy agency’s integrity

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

SSA director Roger Best

In 1990, this country went through the throes of an armed and bloody attempted coup d’état at the hands of religious zealots. Thirty-four years later, TT is now witnessing the surreptitious infiltration of the premier intelligence agency in this country – the Strategic Services Agency (SSA).

Behind it all is said to be the leader of a church led by a 67-year-old pastor (apostle Ian Albert Ezekiel Brown). Brown claims to be a spy planted in the agency to uncover wrongdoing. Several SSA members go to the Jerusalem Bride (JB church) at Chin Aleong Street, Malabar in Arima. Membership is restricted to people primarily with military backgrounds. The membership includes top officials from different branches of the protective services like the police and defence force.

SSA’s operations have captivated readers for weeks as information about the infiltration of the top spy agency, whose vision, in its annual report 2021, says it enables the fight to reduce and prevent serious and organised crime in TT. The information leaked about the perceived threat to national security reads like a script from US novelist Tom Clancy, who was known for his technically detailed espionage storylines.

SSA’s mission statement says the agency contributes to the security of the nation and the people by 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.

SSA’s last annual report, which was laid in Parliament in 2022, states the agency received $163,403,531.86 from the National Security Ministry in 2021 and $320,507.33 in grant funding from the Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat. It added that total expenditures in 2021 decreased by just over 11 per cent from 2020, mainly due to reduced monthly subventions and increases in wire transfer commitments.

The report added: “This is reflected in the expenditure for goods and services, which decreased from $82,475,165.00 in 2020 to $66,339,075.51 in 2021. Personnel expenditure saw a slight increase from $67,789,067.00 in 2020 to $77,865,216.31 in 2021.”

From January to December 2021, the human resource department recruited 78 people, 62 renewals and 16 new staff. The agency also completed the orientation of 28 people and trained managers and supervisors on performance management. The SSA provides assistance and guidance to the police on the detection and prevention of serious crimes, including fraud, conspiracy to murder law enforcement officials, and conspiracies to inspire moral panic. The agency also assists and guides the Immigration Division, the Transnational Organised Crime Unit (TOCU), the Counter Trafficking Unit as well as the Defence Force and prison officers.

The report said despite the pandemic, in 2021, SSA held four academic and eight technical programmes, which included participants from “all spheres of national security.” They included regular and municipal police, including officers from the Parliament Unit, as well as prison and fire officers, workers from the Port Authority and members of the Defence Force, including the intelligence unit.

In 2021, the agency also made recommendations to the Government on the formation of policies about serious crime, prepared crime prevention strategies, stimulated action toward and monitored the implementation of the agreed strategies.

The report said SSA provided strategic intelligence to assist and promote the efficient and effective use of operational resources, enabling the development of law enforcement strategies and identifying new trends and patterns of criminal activities.

Through its intelligence division, the agency hosted a one-day international counter-terrorism conference titled Counter Terrorism and the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Caribbean. It comprised representatives from the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Office of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs, and the police’s Special Branch.

SSA’s investigations department worked directly with other operational units and services to assist in converting intelligence into evidence and disrupting organised crime groups’ activities.

“These included the rescue of kidnap victims, seizures of firearms and narcotics, and the arrest of people involved in criminal activity,” the report said.

Despite all the so-called accomplishments, its head Major Roger Best was the first casualty in the opening scene of what might go down in the country’s history as a religious coup of the national security apparatus, which was supposed to do otherwise.

Best was sent on administrative leave on March 2 after concerns were raised about the agency’s hiring practices and spy claims triggered an emergency meeting of the National Security Council.

The pastor, who is also an SRP employed with the SSA, was reportedly also Best’s “prophetic” adviser.

Several agents were suspended, leading to the removal of another top official a week ago. On Friday, investigators seized the SSA-issued guns from civilian workers from the agency.

On March 2, the Prime Minister moved with dispatch and replaced Best, the local equivalent to the head of the CIA in the US, after the Cabinet was informed of an impending threat.

The day after, on March 3, Dr Rowley, who is also the head of the National Security Council, made the announcement based on the council’s recommendation to the Cabinet.

The head of the SSA was sent on immediate administrative leave while retired Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer, who was recalled from his post as ambassador in Washington DC, was appointed acting head of the SSA.

On March 9, police raided the pastor’s home and the church. The police also raided a site for an extension of the church in Caratal, Cumuto.

After the scandal broke, the church’s website as well as its social media pages were deactivated.

Investigators are trying to find out if the murder in November of Andy Daniel, a close relative of a senior SSA operative, is tied to a misuse of power or connected to the agency.

Daniel, 53, of the Crossings in Arima, was shot dead in a white panel van on the northbound lane of the Uriah Butler Highway near the Caroni flyover at around 1.30 pm on November 11.

Central Division and Homicide Bureau of Investigations (Region III) police visited the scene and gathered evidence. The police recovered seven spent shells of 9mm ammunition.

Eyewitnesses reported to the police that three armed and masked occupants in tactical wear were seen in a black Nissan X-Trail parked behind Daniel’s van on the shoulder. They got out and shot Daniel, killing him on the spot.

No one has been arrested for the murder, nor have there been any suspects.

The SSA security threat is the latest for the nation.

In 2010, Reshmi Ramnarine, the then-head of the now-defunct Security Intelligence Agency (SIA), was found to be underqualified after a scandal broke out over the hiring process. The agency was also accused of illegally spying on several public figures.

In January 2011, she resigned as SIA head and later legally changed her name to Shashi Rekha.