By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Claims that Britain operated an elaborate 10-year electronic snooping operation on virtually all telecommunications in and out of Ireland led to a top-level meeting last month of civil servants and signals experts from the gardai and the army, a Department of Foreign Affairs report reveals.
The report to the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs warns that, while there is no firm evidence of telecommunications traffic being systematically intercepted, "it is necessary to take precautions."
The report reveals that the Irish ambassador in London, Ted Barrington, has twice met the permanent under-secretary of the British Foreign Office to express the Irish government’s concerns.
On both occasions he sought information to allay the concerns and was told it was a matter of policy not to confirm or deny allegations of specific intelligence activities.
Committee member Gay Mitchell, who is Fine Gael foreign affairs spokesman, accused the British of arrogance and has demanded that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern raise the matter with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
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The eavesdropping claims arise out of a Channel 4 TV documentary on July 15 that claimed that from the mid 1980s until 1997, Britain’s Ministry of Defense and General Communications Headquarters had intercepted virtually all external communications to and from Ireland.
Mitchell said the program claimed that the use of a specially built tower at Capenhurst in Cheshire to intercept communications had only ceased because Ireland changed its system of communications from radio waves to fiber-optic cables.
He said the program suggested a new system of "tapping" communications, including phone calls, faxes and e-mail, "may well be continuing at the very same level" using different technology.
The Foreign Affairs report said there was no firm evidence that commercial telecommunications traffic was being intercepted in a systematic or extra-legal way.
Nevertheless, the top-level meeting — which included Garda and army experts — took place Oct. 15 to "address the issue of improved telecommunications security for the future."
It advised "commercial firms should take reasonable precautions to avoid unauthorized access to sensitive information, but should be aware of the limitations of commercially available encryption methods."
The report says that while government communications have a significantly higher level of security, "it should not be assumed that interception was impossible and care should be taken not to send highly confidential material by electronic means."