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PSNI ran secret unit to monitor journalists’ and lawyers’ phones, claims former senior officer

Northern Irish police covertly monitored the phones of journalists and lawyers, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable has claimed.

Alan McQuillan, who left the PSNI in 2023, claims the PSNI used a dedicated laptop to access the phone communications data of hundreds of lawyers and journalists.

He told BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show a unit in the PSNI had set up the laptop, which was separate from other PSNI computer systems, allowing the service to avoid scrutiny from independent inspectors.

The PSNI has said it disputes the accuracy of McQuillan’s claims.

McQuillan has called for a public enquiry into the operation, which he said was used by police investigators to identify the contacts of lawyers and journalists of interest to the PSNI.

He told the BBC programme he had been informed about the operation by senior police officers at the PSNI and was confident of the veracity of the allegations. The BBC said it had also confirmed McQuillan’s story from other police sources. “Any prominent journalist who was running a story that was of interest to the PSNI or against the PSNI was subject to that sort of monitoring,” he said.

The former assistant police constable said the monitoring programme lasted five years between 2011 or 2012 and 2017.

Internal discipline unit

The PSNI’s internal discipline unit originally set up the phone monitoring operation to advance investigations into police misconduct.

But McQuillan said the operation expanded from monitoring police-issued phones to monitoring the phone records of journalists and lawyers.

He likened it to a fishing operation using an “industrial trawler”, gathering up details of phone records to identify who had contacted lawyers and journalists.

Because the unit operated separately from other surveillance operations in the PSNI, it avoided scrutiny from independent commissioners responsible for auditing police surveillance work, said McQuillan.

“This goes beyond an internal enquiry,” he said. “It needs a judge-led enquiry. It has stopped now, but it has caused significant damage to the integrity of the service.”

McQuillan said the PSNI and its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had built up a good reputation for complying with surveillance regulations and had been congratulated by inspectors during annual reviews of its surveillance operations.

“The PSNI and the RUC before initially had a very good reputation,” he said. “Every year, we were being commended by the Surveillance Commissioner, because of the standards they saw when they came to see us. This destroyed that, it really destroyed it. I feel angry about that.”

Absence of accountability systems

The accountability systems that should have been in place at the PSNI were not there, he told the BBC.

McQuillan said police investigators would have been able to use the system to compare phone numbers recorded in journalists’ billing information with a database of PSNI phones.

He said that police could also use journalists’ phone records to identify their confidential sources and potentially visit the source to make their own enquiries.

“If they make mental contact between the fact that they spoke to a journalist, or particularly if it happens twice, they begin to think, ‘Oh, journalist X is working for the police,’” added McQuillan.

He told BBC Radio Ulster it was a simple matter for police to obtain journalists’ phone records. “An officer of the rank of inspector, I think, authorises the telecoms company,” said McQuillan. “And the telecoms company is required to provide all the billing information on that phone number between those dates.”

PSNI rejects McQuillan’s claims

In a statement to the BBC, deputy chief constable Chris Todd said: “The PSNI does not accept as accurate the comments made in the interview with Mr McQuillan.

“To suggest that a standalone computer system was in operation to avoid proper scrutiny and control is simply not the case,” he said.

“Our anti-corruption unit used a secure system that was not accessible to the wider police service, but was subject to the same scrutiny as all other police systems.”

Independent review

PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher has ordered a review of police surveillance of journalists, lawyers and civil society groups from special advocate Angus McCullough KC.

The review follows claims made in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the PSNI and other police forces had unlawfully spied on journalists Trevor Birney, Barry McCaffrey and former BBC journalist Vincent Kearney.

The PSNI acknowledged in a 58-page report last week that it had run a “lawful business monitoring” process to check calls made from police phones against journalists’ phone numbers.

The report disclosed that Police in Northern Ireland have made more than 800 applications for communications data relating to journalists and lawyers since 2011. Police had also authorised four Covert Human Intelligence Sources to provide intelligence on journalists or lawyers.

The applications included 10 to use covert powers to identify journalists’ confidential sources between 2021 and March 2024.

“The remainder of the applications did not seek to identify a journalist’s source, and their profession may have been entirely unrelated to the request,” the report said.

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