Opinion: Learning experience

POSTED: 07/19/13 12:08 PM

It is near impossible not to wonder about how politicians deal with issues that matter. The investigation at the National Security Service VDSM is a case in point. While an opposition MP like Frans Richardson has decided to use the matter as a political football – after all, there are elections next year – others have simply remained silent.

And mind you – they have been silent for more than two years – ever since the first deadline for presenting an annual public report to the parliament expired in 2012. Did nobody ever notice that this report was not forthcoming? Did nobody notice that the Prime Minister failed to submit a public annual report about the secret service to the parliament?

Now that we have something on our hands that looks, feels and smells like a scandal, the representatives of the people are slowly waking up.

Of course, all this could be explained as the growing pains of a young country, but it is still an issue that warrants a critical analysis.

As far as we know, the VDSM-investigation has no likeness to the Edward Snowden case. That seems, for now, a rather preposterous assumption from just one opposition MP.

Given the fact that we are dealing with the country’s secret service here, there are things we will probably never learn. When national security is at stake, a lot of rules go straight out of the window. That’s frustrating, but it is also the nature of the beast.

If someone wanted to know what the VDSM could be up to, it makes sense to read the ordinance that regulates its activities. Its powers are nearly unlimited, and they are controlled by one politician – in this case, our Prime Minister – and by the oversight committee.

The good thing is that these far-reaching methods are subject to a written permission from the Prime Minister or by the head of the service on her behalf. If the head of the service grants such permission to his staff he is required to inform the Prime Minister immediately in writing. While these rules ought to give some peace to citizens that worry – or have reason to worry – about our local spies the problem will always be that these matters remain up to a point very hush-hush. Again, that’s the nature of the beast. It is not possible to run a secret service under full disclosure.

The VDSM could obtain authorization for structural observation, shadowing people or businesses with the use of technical equipment, entering and searching closed locations (like a house or an office), opening and examining closed objects (like letters) and eavesdropping NSA-style (on phones, telecommunication and email).

A more interesting authority the VDSM has is to establish legal entities in preparation for and support of operational activities.

Most of these special methods are subject to permission for three months at most. Using these methods must meet the requirements of proportionality (the relation between the weight of the method and the seriousness of the situation) and subsidiarity (is it possible to use a less heavy method).

All this makes it even more important to have proper oversight in place. That this has not been the case until April 13 of this year is obvious. Maybe there was an oversight committee by law, but in the real world it did not exist in 2010, it did not exist in 2011, it did not exist in 2012 and it did not exist during the first three-and-a-half months of this year.

That’s not good, but all this is also a tough learning experience. The world is not perfect and St. Maarten is no exception. The investigation ought to provide clarity instead of covering everything that went wrong in a shroud of mystery. That not everything will become public, is something we have to live with – whether we like it or not.

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