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Authorities at Odds Over Secret Australian Police Operation that Bugged Officers and Journalists

An unprecedented surveillance operation was based on warrants that weren't supported by the evidence police put before the courts. An inquiry is exposing deep fractures in the police force.

by Scott Mitchell
Feb 6 2015, 7:55pm

Photo by Rick Rycroft/AP

Australian police bugged journalists, each other, and allegedly even their own commissioner in an operation that has remained secret for 15 years. Now a parliamentary inquiry is shedding light on the shadowy internal conflicts of Australia's largest and best-funded force, the New South Wales (NSW) state police.

The parliamentary inquiry began at the end of January with the purpose of investigating an NSW internal bugging operation led by Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn. The program, known as Operation Mascot, kicked off in the late 1990s and targeted alleged corrupt police officers in the department — including another deputy commissioner, Nick Kaldas.

"That conflict has been felt by my executive team," New South Wales police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, told the inquiry during his appearance on Wednesday. "This matter has to be thoroughly investigated and the matters dealt with once and forever."

The two deputy commissioners, Kaldas and Burn, sit on opposite sides of a conflict that has simmered inside the force since a vast surveillance operation was conducted between 1999 and 2001. Addressing the parliamentary inquiry on January 30, Kaldas testified that he was exposing a "cover-up."

"I do this not only for me but for the many honest police whose lives, careers and health were destroyed and the many who are currently, yet again, feeling the same winds of reprisal and payback," Kaldas said. "What has happened in this matter for over a decade is wrong and must never be allowed to happen again."

"From the first time it became clear to me there was massive wrongdoing and habitual illegal acts committed by SCIA and sanctioned and covered up by the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) and others, I have done my best to have the truth of these matters aired and addressed."

Kaldas alleges that the operation, led by Burn, bugged his offices and the home of his ex-wife and children while he was not living at the premises. He testified that the operation was not conducted to the ethical standards of the police force.

"One illustrative example of that is the list of code names for us, the targets, where I am referred to as 'Guido' — a derogatory term for my ethnic background," said Kaldas, who is from a Coptic Christian family and was born in Egypt.

Kaldas testified that on at least two occasions he won promotions that he was not allowed to take because of the cloud the operation cast over him and that a police source attempted to entrap him at least six times with offers of money.

A total of 114 civilians and police officers, including Kaldas, were placed under surveillance by the Special Crime and Internal Affairs (SCIA) unit, but 66 of those names never appeared in a sworn affidavit of evidence submitted by police to obtain the warrants. Kaldas was among those not named in the evidence.

Former Supreme Court Justice and current Investigator of the Police Integrity Commissioner David Levine testified that for obtaining a listening devices warrant it was a "minimum" that the evidence presented by police name the people the police were seeking a warrant against.

Kaldas has a storied international policing career. He was the lead investigator for the United Nations special tribunal into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri from 2009 to 2010. He also served as deputy chief police adviser to the Iraqi government as they rebuilt their police force in 2004.

"I received many threats from Hezbollah and other proxy groups — I fear no man," Kaldas told the inquiry.

Burn, however, said the operation had reason to monitor Kaldas, and that she was not responsible for obtaining warrants.

In her submission, Burn wrote, "I deny that as Team Leader of Operation Mascot, I directed Internal Affairs police to use illegal warrants to secretly record conversations of my rivals in the police force and in particular Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas."

"I did have a reasonable suspicion," she told the inquiry. "I do have a reasonable belief. I do not believe it is something I should necessarily be saying in public."

The inquiry also takes on a greater significance as Scipione is scheduled to step down this year, with Burn and Kaldas being two likely choices as successor.

The conflict between the two officers is only one of the revelations to come out of the inquiry. Police also targeted Steve Barrett, a former journalist with Channel 9, and received a warrant to use listening devices to monitor him.

"I have not done anything wrong. I did not place my name on a warrant for a listening device," Barrett told the inquiry. "The fundamental question is the examination as to why I was put on a listening device warrant."

Barrett was named in a warrant as being under suspicion of money laundering, corruption, and conspiracy to pervert the court of justice, but the sworn affidavit used to obtain the warrant contained no evidence against him and did not state his name.

The warrant was later leaked to journalists, including Barrett himself.

"I am a journalist that has a large contact network," said Barrett. "When people found out that I may have been bugged a lot of my sources just dried up. It devastated me and in the end, I will tell you, I think it cost my job at 60 Minutes."

Journalist Neil Mercer exposed the use of warrants for the listening devices, obtained without the required evidence in a series of articles in 2012 for the Sydney Morning Herald. The reaction of the police department was to create a strike force called Jooriland to investigate the leaks, not to progress investigations into the illegal wire taps. The existence of Jooriland was revealed to Mercer just before he appeared before the inquiry.

"Given the fact that the leaks only happened because people believed there had been a cover-up for more than a decade," Mercer said during his testimony. "For the police then to target the journalist and presumably the whistleblowers by combing through my phone records is — I just think that is disgraceful."

Scipione denied that Mercer or any other journalist was tapped as a part of the Jooriland operation.

Clive Small, the former assistant commissioner, and Mal Brammer, a former commander of internal affairs testified that police had bugged the commissioner at the time, Peter Ryan, who had been recruited from the British police force.

His biographer, Sue Williams, told the online magazine Crikey that, "Ryan always had a very strong suspicion his office and home were bugged as sometimes snippets of private conversations he'd had would turn up in the newspapers, or be reported on radio and TV."

"He always felt he was being white-anted by his enemies in the NSW Police Service, and this was just one more way they had of finding out about his life and then attempting to undermine him, both professionally and personally."

When he testified, Small shifted the focus away from political scandal and onto the personal cost for officers.

"For almost a decade and a half," he said, "the losers in this matter have been specific police, former police and private citizens who have been named in listening device warrants without justifiable cause and who, as a result, have been tainted with allegations of corruption."

"For example, during 1998 the Special Crime Internal Affairs conducted a seven-month surveillance operation on one of its own female operatives, yet records of that operation either went missing or never existed. No senior officer at SCIA could explain why the operation had been undertaken or what it was that officer had done to cause the operation. She had done nothing wrong."

Even though police were aware of issues with the warrants as early as 2001, Scipione testified that no statement has ever been made that cleared or rectified the allegations against the people named by the warrants and who were wrongfully placed under surveillance.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell