By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Minnis administration tabled an Interception of Communication Bill and legislation to create legal framework for the disbanded National Intelligence Agency in the House of Assembly yesterday.
Both matters were controversial under the former Christie administration.
The Progressive Liberal Party’s version of the interception bill was criticised as unconstitutional, and it was withdrawn by the former administration from the House of Assembly for further consultation before the general election.
The previous legislation was abandoned amid outcry from activists as well as the Free National Movement, in opposition at the time, expressing fear the PLP would use the so-called “Spy Bill” against opponents.
Compared to the original Bill, the Minnis administration’s version has not been significantly altered.
Proponents of the legislation say it is a modern crime fighting tool, one that gives the Supreme Court some oversight of interception activities, a power the court doesn’t have under the Listening Devices Act which it would repeal.
The legislation broadens the communication services and networks from which law enforcement officers could intercept data, and it allows officers to obtain entry warrants from the Supreme Court so they could secretly enter institutions to set up interception devices. It forces people who work for postal or communications services, be they public or private networks, to assist in the execution of an interception or entry warrant.
Unlike the original bill, the new bill gives the minister responsible for national security the power to authorise certain people to use listening devices for no more than 30 days so long as the minister is “satisfied that the interests of the defence or the internal security of the Bahamas so require” that it be done.
The Interception of Communication Bill also gives the commissioner of police, after consultation with the attorney general, similar powers to authorise a police officer to use a listening device for no longer than 14 days.
Meanwhile, the NIA Bill comes after the former Christie administration spent years promising, but ultimately failing, to bring the version of the Bill it said was prepared. Despite no legal framework being in place, the NIA operated under the Christie administration until it was disbanded by the Free National Movement shortly after the May general election.
The Bill, which aims to “coordinate intelligence gathering among law enforcement agencies and government departments,” is striking for its emphasis on secrecy.
Although the director of the agency is expected to maintain a public profile, the agents of the NIA are expected to have their identities kept secret.
The agents will not be “public officers,” the Bill said, and it would be an offence to disclose their identity unless authorised by the prime minister or director.
A review committee of parliamentarians and senators will have oversight over the NIA.
This committee will consist of three parliamentarians and two senators selected by the prime minister, and one parliamentarian and senator selected by the leader of the Official Opposition.
Although the review committee can consider “any particular operational matter” of the NIA, this power can be limited by the prime minister, according to the Bill.
The review committee’s access to information can also be limited.
The relevant minister could decide that any information the review committee seeks should not be disclosed to it.
The committee would be required to make annual reports to Parliament on the discharge of its functions, but only if the prime minister believes its reported material wouldn’t be prejudicial to the functions of the agency.
The review committee would be responsible for investigating complaints against the NIA and could summon and enforce the appearance of anyone to give evidence under oath during an investigation.
State Minister for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson, who tabled both bills, said the administration will allow a period of public consultations to take place before debate on the tabled bills takes place in Parliament.