PRIME Minister Andrew Holness admitted yesterday that a United States surveillance aircraft was used to provide assistance to the Jamaican security forces during last year’s police/military operation in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston.
The operation was aimed at nabbing crime lord, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, who was wanted by the United States on drug and firearm trafficking charges.
The prime minister’s stunning admission came on the heels of strident denials by at least two members of his Cabinet that a US surveillance aircraft was in Jamaican airspace on May 24, 2010 and provided information to members of the security forces.
Those denials were in response to an observation by several Jamaicans, particularly those in the Corporate Area, who reportedly saw what they described as a ‘strange looking aircraft’ flying above the downtown Kingston area on the afternoon of May 24 when the operation was in full gear.
Not long after the sighting of the plane, several local users of Facebook and other social networks suggested that the aircraft was owned by the US Government and was providing assistance to local security personnel.
In subsequent checks, at least two Government ministers and a senior member of the Jamaica Defence Force denied that a foreign-owned aircraft was used to provide support.
But at an emergency press conference held yesterday afternoon at the Office of the Prime Minister, Holness, who holds the defence portfolio, acknowledged that the United States Government offered assistance, which was accepted by the Jamaican Government.
“The United States Government initially made an offer to provide surveillance and technical equipment; we accepted and followed the normal protocol of exchanging diplomatic notes to provide the government-to-government cover for such assistance. The technical term used is general imagery assistance and communications. Having established the protocol through a diplomatic note, that would have been followed by specifics between the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force) and the relevant agency in the United States,” said Holness.
He sought to explain that while the Government accepted the offer of surveillance from its US counterpart, the specific nature of the deliverables were not discussed at the government to government level, but were the subject of discussions between the JDF and the relevant agency in the United States. It is against this background that Holness declared that it was possible for members of the administration to be out of the loop as it related to the specific technology that the US Government would offer.
“The minister of national security would not have been involved; the minister would not have been aware that the specifics of the assistance would have included an aircraft,” said Holness, who was flanked by Dwight Nelson, the minister of national security; Chief of Defence Staff Major General Antony Anderson, as well as the JDF spokesman at the time of the operation, Brigadier Rocky Meade. Minister with responsibility for information, Arthur Williams, was also at the head table.
While admitting that a Lockheed P-3 Orion was in the Jamaican airspace, the prime minister emphasised that there were no US forces on the ground in West Kingston where Tivoli Gardens is situated. “We would want to reaffirm our position that the US Government or its military did not participate in the operations in West Kingston,” said Holness who had earlier told journalists that some of their questions could not be answered due to security concerns.
Despite the attempt by the prime minister to address the issue, his national security minister did not escape harsh questioning from journalists who sought to determine how he was unaware of the existence of such assistance from the United States. The questions stemmed from repeated admissions by Nelson who only a day earlier had told local journalists that he had no knowledge of a surveillance plane being in Jamaican airspace during the operation, in which more than 70 people, including two members of the security forces, were killed.
“The information I provided was not incorrect. It was that the Ministry of National Security had no record of any request for permission for an aircraft to conduct surveillance; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have been aware of a request for imagery and communications and that could include satellite surveillance,” said Nelson.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not able to tell us about the Orion aircraft, so on the basis of that I correctly stated that my checks with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not indicate any record for the permission of an aircraft to conduct surveillance,” Nelson added.
The Government’s acknowledgement of assistance from the United States and of the involvement of the Orion Lockheed P-3 Orion came days after the US magazine, The New Yorker, broke a story which contradicted the position that the Jamaican Government had held since May last year.
In its investigation into the involvement of the United States in the Tivoli operation, The New Yorker, through a freedom of information request, obtained confirmation from the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that a surveillance aircraft was in the Jamaican airspace on May 24 and provided information to local security forces during their bid to capture Coke.
Source: Jamaica Observer