FEARS THAT constitutional, civil and judicial liberties are being undermined were voiced last week following sensational revelations that a parallel secret service had been set up by the government, reports The Resident’s Chris Graeme.
The worrying revelations – broken by weekly current affairs magazine Visão – claim the government had set up a ‘Top Secret’ intelligence department without the prior consent or knowledge of the Portuguese Parliament, operating on the shadowy fringes of the law and directly answerable to Prime Minister José Sócrates.
The new group of espionage specialists was supposedly created to deal with problems as varied as international terrorism and organised crime, but also to secretly snoop into the affairs of key political, business and public figures in a bid to root out corruption.
The magazine alleges that the government, with the expressed blessing of the Prime Minister, is developing a new “information services organisation” under the direction of Júlio Pereira, Secretary General of the Sistema de Informações da República Portuguesa (SIRP), the Portuguese Republic Information System, a body which loosely equates to the UK’s MI5.
However, following the revelations, the Secretary General denied the allegations of the existence of a secret intelligence-gathering body or organisation directly linked to the Prime Minister’s Office, operating alongside known intelligence services. At a press conference, on the same day the report came out, Pereira said: “It is completely false that there is any kind of structure to produce information within the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The magazine claims that the secret organisation, which operates outside the jurisdiction of both the Portuguese Parliament and the limits of constitutional law, is presently “restricted to the analysis and production of information”.
The alleged new organisation, supposedly operating from the Council of Ministers’ building at Gomes Teixeira, does not answer to, is not controlled or scrutinised by the Conselho de Fiscalização, the Council of Inspections, set up by Parliament.
Under current Portuguese law, the powers and competencies of the SIRP are laid down by article 19, Point 3 of Fundamental Law No 4, dated November 6, 2004. The law does not make reference to the possibility of the Prime Minister’s Office “analysing and producing information”.
However, the Secretary General can, under powers granted by the Secretary of State (Home Office Minister), operate an auxiliary office within the legal parameters of the ministerial cabinets. It cannot set up its own office without the knowledge of the Secretary of State, or operate outside of his/her parameters.
In fact, the only bodies given legal powers to work for Júlio Pereira’s office, who can answer directly and politically to the Prime Minister, are the Serviço de Informações de Segurança (SIS), the Security Information Service, and the Serviço de Informações Estratégicas de Defesa (SIED), the Strategic Defence Information Service. Under the current law, only these two organisations are legally permitted to collect, research and process highly sensitive ‘Top Secret’ classified information, in other words, State secrets.
What is being questioned by the national press, politicians and members of Parliament is not so much the function of the organisation itself, but the fact that such a body could have been set up without the knowledge of the President or Parliament and without a specific, legal framework to cater for it. Put another way, it calls into question the democratic rights, liberties and guarantees of the citizens and worryingly harks back to the autocratic days under Salazar, when the government could do as it pleased.
The revelations are likely to prove a political hot potato for a government that is still smarting from last month’s disclosures that private and confidential telephone data to and from leading political and business figures, including the President of the Republic, had been sifted and examined by the Procurator General over the Casa Pia child abuse scandal.
The new embryonic secret service organisation is allegedly part of a wider and more ambitious plan to merge together the three present Portuguese intelligence organisations – two civilian (SIED and SIRP) and one military (Divisão de Informações Militares – DIMIL, the Military Information Division) into one new, MI5-style organisation. This effectively means that the days of the SIS, located in Lisbon’s Alexandre Herculano, and SIED, located in Forte do Alto do Duque in Algés, are probably numbered.
The believed plan is to eventually create one new, high-tech intelligence organisation under the jurisdiction of former magistrate Júlio Pereira at a high security headquarters in Ameixoeira, Lumiar, in one of the new districts of Lisbon.
The Portuguese communist PCP party had already called for former SIS boss, Margarida Blasco, to clear up the situation of the country’s secret services before Parliament in November last year, but the plan was kiboshed by the socialist PS party.
PCP Deputy António Filipe, in declarations to the media, said last week: “The general lack of regulation in the country’s secret service organisations is worrying to say the least. The PCP has been alerted various times that the government was preparing to amalgamate the intelligence services, something it has always denied. The situation has got to be clarified because we really don’t know under what terms and laws they are operating, which calls into question the government’s transparency.”