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By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Christie administration created the National Intelligence Agency after considering a number of serious, terrorist-like threats that threatened the Bahamas, former State Minister for National Security Keith Bell claimed yesterday, warning the Minnis administration that it is making a “grave mistake” disbanding the agency.
On Monday, National Security Minister Marvin Dames announced that the NIA has been disbanded, saying the unit was isolated from other law enforcement units and had not functioned like an intelligence agency.
But Mr Dames, countered Mr Bell, should have in his possession “unequivocal” and “indisputable” evidence showing that the NIA served a meaningful purpose.
Mr Bell avoided discussing either the threats he said The Bahamas has faced or the evidence he said proves the NIA’s importance.
“I hope the minister and the prime minister and the attorney general would have had a very strong and sober meeting in which the law enforcement agencies indicated to all of them the reality which the country is facing,” he said.
For years the Christie administration was criticised for forming the NIA without accompanying legislation.
While officials in the former administration often suggested that in the absence of legislation, the NIA played a useful but benign role in the country’s law enforcement system, Mr Bell struck a different tone when discussing the role of the agency yesterday, claiming it was critical in helping the Bahamas respond to terrorism-like threats. Indeed, he said the NIA was focused on international crimes related to terrorism and not more typical domestic crime matters.
“We’ve had enough threats to cause us to move into action at times,” he said. “I cannot disclose the threats in the interest of national security but I’m sure the minister and the prime minister have been briefed properly. If not, then I am prepared in the interest of national security to brief them.”
When contacted, Mr Dames said yesterday that he is satisfied after a thorough review of the matter that there was no meaningful “connectivity” between the NIA and the wider law enforcement community.
“We couldn’t justify its existence,” Mr Dames told The Tribune. “We don’t want a situation in this small country of ours where you have units operating and there is no coordination and partnership because that lends to all sorts of stuff.”
However, Mr Bell suggested that one threat the Bahamas faces comes from criminals deported here from the United States.
“They come back with a variety of expertise,” he said. “There are criminals in our midst who have been trained in all kinds of sophisticated weapons, some even trained by the US military.
“I’m very concerned that given what’s going on around us and around the world, the government would appear to just come into office a few weeks ago and arbitrarily end this. When you stop something it’s more difficult to start it again and get the momentum and drive that it takes. It’s always better to work in a state of preparedness. Every country that has experienced these major incidents, it’s better to prepare and given the climate of what’s going on in the region, we know too well that what we started was a good thing.”
When asked why the former administration failed to bring legislation governing the NIA if the agency was so important, Mr Bell said the Christie led government wanted to get the legislation right and spent time benchmarking it against other ones in the region.
He also suggested that because of the criticism the former administration faced over the NIA, the previous government wanted to make sure it got the timing of tabling the legislation right.
He insisted that the methods the NIA used to collect intelligence were legal, even as he refused to discuss the nature of those methods.
“None of the actions I’m aware of would’ve required legislation to make them lawful,” he said. “They exercised authority that existed under existing legislation. The defence force officers were empowered to act under the Defence Act for instance; police were empowered to conduct searches under the Police Act; the commissioner had powers under the Listening Devices Act to authorise the interception of communications if necessary; the NIA was an amalgamation of authorities and powers already existent in the country.”
For some time, former Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) Commodore Clifford Scavella headed the NIA.
After he stepped down, he was replaced by a lieutenant in the defence force, Mr Bell said.
“The individual we had heading the centre was one of the persons trained by the regional intelligence centre for a number of years,” he said. “He was a highly trained individual. He could tell of the very real threats the nation faced. They are not things you want to talk about and can talk about, but citizens expect the ministry and the minister to protect them.”
Mr Bell said the NIA did not require legislation to function.
“The lack of legislation did not prohibit it from operating in a way that would be beneficial,” he said. “It’s not the first agency where legislation comes behind. The forensic lab in the police force; the explosions and technicians unit in the police force formed some time ago are other examples.”
He added: “I think (the administration is) making a grave mistake given what’s going on around us. My humble suggestion would be to continue building on what we started and quickly review the legislation because it’s finished.”