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EDITORIAL - Thanks for the Tivoli surveillance flights

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2011 | 12:00 AM
In recent days, the Holness administration has expended precious time and substantial energy attempting to extricate itself from a silly, self-spun tangle over whether a United States government surveillance aircraft provided intelligence to the Jamaican security forces during their May 2010 operation in Tivoli Gardens to dislodge the mobster Christopher Coke.

In the process, a positive development, which our Government should celebrate, and for which it could have squeezed political credit, is in danger of being diminished because, for some specious motive, it lied unnecessarily. The background to this issue is important.

After nine months of resisting America's request for the extradition of Coke, who was close to the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the Government, in the face of widespread pressure, agreed that he should go. Coke's supporters barricaded themselves in his Tivoli Gardens redoubt, while other militiamen attacked police and razed police stations elsewhere. The Jamaican state faced a direct threat from armed irregulars.

It was to confront Coke's militia that the Jamaican authorities accepted help from the US, with which Jamaica has friendly relations and is a security partner, in aerial surveillance. Indeed, an aircraft was widely observed flying over Kingston and, in particular, in the vicinity of Tivoli Gardens.

At the time, however, the then information minister, Mr Daryl Vaz, flatly rejected that Jamaica had received "outside assistance in this operation".

"That is for sure," Mr Vaz declared.

Splitting technical hairs

Perchance Mr Vaz was ignorant of the facts, Colonel Rocky Meade, as he was then, should have had them. Colonel Meade, now a brigadier, was the chief military spokesman on the Tivoli Gardens operation. The surveillance aircraft would presumably have fed information to Up Park Camp, the headquarters of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). But in 2010, Brigadier Meade appeared to split technical hairs, declaring that "there were no drones here". The surveillance aircraft would have been manned.

Now, using US government information, The New Yorker magazine will this week publish an article to the effect that an American surveillance aircraft provided intelligence to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Jamaican officials.

Our national security minister, Mr Dwight Nelson, initially denied the claim. In a manner reminiscent of his attempted political point-scoring remarks about a secret memorandum as the operational basis for Jamaica's eavesdropping cooperation with the DEA, Mr Nelson said a search of his ministry and Up Park Camp had turned up no documentation of any involvement of an American plane in the operation.

It is not clear whether the controversial secret memorandum provided the basis for the aerial surveillance, which Prime Minister Andrew Holness and JDF Chief of Defence Staff, Brigadier General Antony Anderson, have admitted took place. When they ought to have been concentrating on more immediately critical issues, both men, and several senior aides, were palpably uncomfortable with their ponderous explanations of why Minister Nelson could plead ignorance of the development and attempt to parse a legitimate process of security cooperation between two friendly states, as though it was some infringement of Jamaican sovereignty.

Yet, the decline in crime in Jamaica, in particular homicides, since Coke's departure and the degrading of his network suggest that America's insistence on his extradition, and whatever help they may have given to effect it - the memorandum included - were the best aid package by a foreign government to Jamaica in recent times.

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