PM defends Saunders’ appointment amid opposition’s concerns

Basseterre, St. Kitts – The prime minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Dr. Timothy Harris, has defended the appointment of former Jamaican Defence Force official Maj. Gen. Stewart Saunders to the post of national security adviser.

According to reports, Saunders was chief of defence staff of the Jamaica Defence Force during the much-talked about Tivoli Gardens incident in 2010, which saw at least 73 people killed by security forces in an effort to apprehend Christopher “Dodus” Coke. Saunders’ appointment came under scrutiny by opposition members when it was announced last week.

Speaking last week on public radio, the leader of the opposition, the Right Honourable Dr. Denzil L. Douglas, voiced his concerns on the appointment due, he said, to Saunders’ involvement in the incident.

According to a report in the Jamaica Gleaner, a three-member tribunal that investigated the incident delivered a stinging rebuke of the leadership provided by Saunders and retired Police Commissioner Owen Ellington. However the commission never recommended that Saunders be barred from leading or otherwise participating in future security operations.

“CDS Saunders, COP Ellington, ACP [Assistant Commissioner Granville] Gause and DSP [Deputy Superintendent Warren] Turner are not included in our recommendation because they are no longer serving members of the JDF and JCF,” the commission wrote.

Speaking at a sitting of National Assembly, however, Harris defended the appointment by indicating that Saunders outperformed all the other applications received and boasted competencies unmatched in the region. He said that the government, in making the appointment, has satisfied a legal obligation in relation to appointing someone to the post and he also referenced the responsibilities of the national security adviser to shed light on how the individual will function.

“The law says that he should advise and make recommendations on proposed policies on national security and on matters pertaining to security issues,” Harris said. “He should contribute to the formulation of national security policies and he should serve on any committee, commission, board or authority that deals with issues of national security at the direction of the prime minister. He represents the government at the direction of the prime minister at national, regional and international meetings where the subject matter engages upon the security interest of St. Christopher and Nevis. He is responsible for gathering and collating information and intelligence on national security matter and collaborating if necessary on local regional and international agencies involving intelligence gathering and analysis.”

Harris further added that the national security adviser is a very important post in the national security structure of the federation.

“By as been outlined and prescribed by law, this post is distinct from the role of commissioner of police and commander of the defence force, and it is distinct from the role of the permanent secretary yet this is one of most senior person in the security system,” he said. “The office holder should bring his expert knowledge and experience to bare on policy formulation on implementation.”

Harris then gave an overview as to how they arrived at the appointment of Saunders, indicating the search began November 2016.

“On Nov. 29, 2016, and the days and weeks following, the Ministry of National Security in major newspapers, over radio stations in print and electronic media online, invit[ed] member of the public to apply for the post,” he said. “Additionally, invitations were sent to police forces and other security organizations in the region. Interested applicants were required to submit letters of interest and supporting documents by Jan. 16. At the close of the period of advertisement, only three applications were received. Harris indicated that two of the applicants were nationals of St. Kitts and Nevis and one was from Dominica. After due consideration, the Ministry of National Security determined that none of the three had the experience or training for the role.

“All three of them functioned too low in the hieratical structure of the organization in which they last worked or presently worked to bring much in terms of leadership and experience,” Harris said. “In our efforts to fill this very vital post, my government ensured that we reach out further to the region for support and assistance.”

The prime minister disclosed that they reached out to regional bodies such as the Regional Security System (RSS) and Caricom IMPACS to solicit assistance in sourcing a suitable individual. The wider search produced two new applicants.

“The second batch produced two new applications, with very strong recommendations,” Harris said. “One was a Trinidadian-born professor in security related fields at the point of retirement in the USA. The second applicant was retired Maj. Gen. Stewart Saunders of Jamaica.”

Harris said that interviews were held with the two candidates in May and the Jamaica wowed the panel of interviewers with what he was brining to the table.

“The report from the interview panel highly favoured Maj. Gen. Saunders,” Harris said. “When the scores were tabulated, the professor got about 54 percent, while the major had 86 percent. In summarizing, the interviewing panel found that Saunders would bring a number of competences to the position few [people] within the region and hemisphere could compete.”

He added that Saunders will bring to St. Kitts and Nevis more than 40 years of public service and dealing with crime at the operational, strategic and policy level.

“This is a man [who] has been there and has done that and has a story to tell to the world,” Harris said. “Second, [he has] the knowledge and experience in dealing with crime at national, regional and international levels. Third, [he has] knowledge and experience in the development of critical legislation and policies to improve anti-crime efforts. Fourth, [he has] first-hand knowledge of the transformation process and the law enforcement organisation to enhance public safety. [And] fifth, [he has] advice on the unification of government ministries for the national security effort.”

Harris stated that Saunders must help the area in intelligence-gathering capabilities and will also bring specific knowledge relating to terrorism in the Caribbean. “Terrorism has now been flagged as one of the highest concern to the U.S. government in the hemisphere,” Harris said.

Harris, who is also the minister of national security, said Saunders had been involved in the Grenada difficulty of 1979-1983 and was honoured as a result of the leadership in relation to those events.

“Clearly all of these competences and more outlined by the interview panel as to why they preferred Major Saunders are necessary competences for this job,” Harris said. “Major Saunders has played a major role and led in legislative reform in Jamaica, including development of anti-gang legislation. This is something that our commissioner of police has asked to become more aggressive in its implementation.”

Harris said some of Saunders’ achievements as a national security official in Jamaica included the DNA Evidence Act, the Road Traffic Act, the transformation of national forensic and the establishment of an anti-corruption branch in Jamaica.

“So, when you look at all of these, these are matter[ing] now…in terms of our own security action plan and bringing on board at this time a man with a wealth of knowledge – theoretical and practical – and who has operated at tactical strategic and policy levels to all of these matters,” Harris said.

He also noted that Saunders will help bring back belief in the communities by targeting at-risk youth to move them away from violence. “He understands that better than most,” Harris said, by “drawing on his experience that the overdependence on the club stick approach through the deployment of security forces is not the silver bullet to solve criminality in the long run.”

Harris also spoke to Saunders’ involvement in the Tivoli Gardens incident. “It was the major general’s job to restore order and to bring those criminal gangsters to justice, and he did just that.”

He added that the interviewing panel read thoroughly the report on the affair and he was assured that there is nothing in the report that associated Saunders with any criminal activity with respect to that operation.

“We have made several inquiries pertaining to the suitability of Saunders for the position and our findings have confirmed the initial impressions and verdict of the interview panel,” Harris said, noting that no charges were ever brought against Saunders from the Commission of Inquiry.

“He completed his service at the Jamaica Defence Force at the highest level, retiring in October 2010 under a Jamaica Labour Party Government. In 2012, the government brought him back to serve as a senior consultant and national security advisor to Minister Peter Buntin of the Peoples National Party. Succeeding governments in Jamaica had confidence in this major to promote him after the Dodus affair. So here it is he went in to restore order in a political environment, which Dodus was wanted and after that incident rather than being demoted…he was being lifted up and promoted.”

Harris also stated that Saunders was also appointed permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security in Jamaica in 2013 and despite a change of government in February 2016, Saunders continued in that role. He also noted that Saunders has been a lecturer at the University of the West Indies since 2012.