Northern Ireland

New Police Ombudsman chief led PSNI unit linked to surveillance of journalists and lawyers

Hugh Hume set to become ombudsman chief executive

Hugh Hume, the soon to be appointed chief executive of the PONI office
Former PSNI office Hugh Hume (Corporate Photographers Dublin)

A former PSNI officer confirmed as the new Police Ombudsman chief executive was in charge of an undercover unit linked to the surveillance of journalists and lawyers.

Hugh Hume was recently selected to take on the critical role within Marie Anderson’s office and is expected to take up his post in the coming months.

In 2018 he was investigated by the Police Ombudsman along with other senior officers, including former Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris, now the Garda Commissioner.

Both were later cleared following an investigation by former Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire following complaints by two former officers over the handling of Operation Henley, which focused on PSNI vehicle contracts.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris says there are plans to bring in more than 100 cameras in an effort to crack down on the number of drivers who speed
Garda Commissioner and former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Hume is currently a member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) and previously served with the force’s inspectorate.

From 2011, he was a detective chief superintendent in the Crime Operations Department and according to a GSOC profile “was in charge of the use of specialist resources including air support, firearms officers, ANPR, surveillance and latterly Intelligence and analysis”.

He retired from the PSNI in 2017.

Informed sources say that in the years before he left the PSNI, Mr Hume had an oversight of the force’s Anti-Corruption Unit, which is a branch of the Professional Standards Department.

The Anti-Corruption Unit is attached to the PSNI’s C3 department, which was formerly known as ‘Special Branch’.

Sources say Mr Hume is a former Head of Intelligence at C3.

There is no suggestion that Mr Hume directed the surveillance of journalists or legal professionals.

It is understood that within the Anti-Corruption Unit there were three separate sections, comprised of an intelligence cell, a surveillance unit and a source handling branch.

Although Mr Hume assumed the senior intelligence role in 2011, sources say he was previously attached to Crime Operations as a detective superintendent and served as a regional head.

The Anti-Corruption Unit was formed around 2007, replacing the PSNI’s Internal Investigations Branch, and continues to operate today, although it is believed that it’s source handling section was stood down in recent years.

Part of the unit’s remit is to investigate potential leaks of information by PSNI personnel.

Informed sources suggest it was responsible for carrying out a controversial undercover surveillance operation against two former PSNI officers more than a decade ago.

Duncan McCausland, chair of the Independent Complaints Panel. Picture by Press Eye/Darren Kidd
Former PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland,

In 2014 retired Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland was one of a number of men questioned in connection with the awarding of vehicle contracts.

West Yorkshire Chief Constable, and ex-PSNI officer Mark Gilmore, was also focus of the probe.

Neither man was ever prosecuted.

Mr McCausland and Mr Gilmore later complained to the London based Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) about secret surveillance in their case.

The IPT looks at complaints from people who believe they have been the victim of unlawful covert interference.

In 2022, the PSNI settled the case just before a public hearing was about to start, admitting it had broken its own intelligence rules.

Informed sources say the Anti-Corruption Unit was also responsible for carrying out surveillance on journalists and members of the legal profession.

It was recently claimed that the PSNI had trawled phone data of journalists every six months to establish if they had been in contact with police sources.

Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London
Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey (Victoria Jones/PA)

Details of the surveillance came to light through the IPT, which is examining allegations that two investigative journalists, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were subjected to unlawful surveillance.

It emerged that a third journalist, RTÉ's Vincent Kearney, may also have been snooped on while making a documentary touching on the Police Ombudsman’s office in 2011.

To date it has emerged that Mr McCaffrey was placed under police surveillance five times over a ten-year period, with the earliest known incident dates to 2008.

A PSNI report presented to the Policing Board last week confirmed that the force made 823 applications for communications data relating to journalists and lawyers over a 13-year period from 2011-2024.

Sources say members of the Anti-Corruption Unit “cut and pasted” journalists’ phone numbers every six months as part of the trawl.

It is understood that the selected numbers were then forwarded to a special PSNI unit that liaises with mobile phone companies.

It is claimed that any request for information from mobile phone firms must be authorised by an inspector.

Once received, the requested data is then analysed by members of C3 – the modern incarnation of Special Branch.

It has also been suggested the unit used a “stand alone computer and nobody else had access to it”.

Members of the unit are said to have used a process known as Lawful Business Monitoring, which included carrying out surveillance on selected targets.

“Those boys did Lawful Business Monitoring for months at a time without warrants,” a source added.

A report into the PSNI surveillance of journalists and lawyers has identified up to 18 incidents involving members of the press and legal professio (Clive Gee/PA Archive/PA Images)
Concerns have been raised about PSNI surveillance (Clive Gee/PA Archive/PA Images)

Documents disclosed during IPT proceedings relating to Mr McCausland and Mr Gilmore provide a unique glimpse at the work of the Anti-Corruption Unit.

Crucially, a 2016 inspection report from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) reveals that there was no “external oversight” of Anti-Corruption Unit cases involving Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) and that the Covert Authorities Bureau, described as a unit that audits intelligence within the PSNI, was totally “unsighted” in some cases.

An OSC inspection report produced a year later revealed that after examining PSNI ‘Contact Sheets’ some of the Anti-Corruption Unit’s work was focused on the sexual conduct of police officers including “reporting on which police officers were sleeping with whom” and what they were posting on social media or in photographs to a CHIS.

The 2017 document notes that reporting had “moved away from drugs…and more towards the unlawful disclosure of information from police systems” - which has been suggested as one reason why journalists were being monitored.

The paper also suggests that by 2017 oversight of the Anti-Corruption Unit had been increased.

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher is to meet with the Policing Board leadership on Wednesday
PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Liam McBurney/PA)

Earlier this week PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher announced a review by London based barrister Angus McCullough KC into the use of surveillance against journalists, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.

In a statement, Mr Boutcher said there had been an “inaccurate interpretation” of documents disclosed at a recent IPT hearing.

He said that “one of the tasks of PSNI’s Professional Standards Department Anti-Corruption Unit (PSD) is to detect and deter any illicit or illegal communications by police officers and staff”.

Significantly, he added that “one method of identifying and deterring illegal contact with journalists is for PSD to carry out periodic checks on phone calls made from police telephone extensions and police-issued mobile phones.

“The numbers called are checked against the numbers held by PSNI for journalists,” he confirmed.

Mr Boutcher claimed “there is nothing covert about this procedure” adding that the journalists’ numbers are publicly available or were supplied to the PSNI as contact numbers.

It is not known if any journalist was ever informed that their personal data was being used by the Anti-Corruption Unit.

When asked this week if Hugh Hume has any knowledge about surveillance being carried out on journalists and lawyers while he was attached to the PSNI’s Anti-Corruption Unit, or any other police department, a spokeswoman for the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission said: “The matter you referred to precedes Mr Hume’s appointment to the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission and would be best referred to the PSNI Press Office.”

When the same question was put to the Police Ombudsman a spokeswoman said: “Matters related to the conduct and use of covert surveillance are within the jurisdiction of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

“Should an issue arise with any employee which may represent a potential conflict of interest related to the remit of the Police Ombudsman’s office, it would be managed in line with our conflict of interest policy.”

Gardai were also contacted and asked if it commissioner Drew Harris has any knowledge about surveillance being carried out on journalists and lawyers during his time at the PSNI.

In response a spokesman said: “Queries in relation to any matters arising while the Garda Commissioner was a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

The PSNI was contacted and asked if Mr Hume has any knowledge about surveillance being carried out on journalists.

A similar question was posed in relation to Mr Harris.

In response the PSNI issued separate, but identical statements, neither of which provided a direct response.

“The Chief Constable continues to co-operate with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office who independently oversee the use of investigatory powers in the United Kingdom, ensuring they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest,” a spokeswoman said.

“As legal proceedings are ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment.”