BEIRUT: Intensive late-night talks will likely avert a Cabinet crisis in Wednesday’s session over the transfer of telecoms data from the Telecommunications Ministry to the Internal Security Forces, ministerial sources told The Daily Star.
While sources are predicting consensus, the debate between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and head of Change and Reform bloc MP Michel Aoun continued into Tuesday, raising concerns that an agreement could not be reached. Talks began between officials at the Grand Serail and the ministry Tuesday in order to reach a compromise between the prime minister and Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, a member of the Change and Reform bloc.
“Despite the ongoing clash in the media between the Change and Reform bloc and the prime minister, the issue of telecoms data is heading toward compromise, the details of which are not clear,” a source said.
Earlier this week, Mikati signed a request to extend the access of the ISF to the country’s telecoms data so that the institution can continue to probe major security incidents in Lebanon.
Mikati continued to warn against refusals of transferring telecoms data to the ISF despite ongoing dialogue with Aoun’s group. In comments to a local newspaper published Tuesday, Mikati said Sehnaoui would be responsible for the consequences should he refuse to provide the telecoms data requested by ISF.
“We cannot hinder the work of security agencies ... let him [Sehnaoui] bear the responsibility for any turmoil that could result from not providing telecoms data,” Mikati said. “[Sehnaoui] is bound to comply with the request [for the data] and not object to it.”
Aoun fired back at Mikati following a weekly Change and Reform bloc meeting, saying it was Sehnaoui, rather than the premier, who had the constitutionally mandated authority to decide when to transfer data from his ministry.
“It is the minister who is responsible for issues related to his ministry and Prime Minister Najib Mikati does not have the final word concerning the issue,” Aoun said. “Why is Sehnaoui blamed for security incidents that happened [in the past] when security agencies had access to the telecoms data?”
“Many crimes occurred [even] when the ISF had access to the data, and they [the ISF] were exempt from any questioning,” he added.
Aoun noted that the judicial committee, tasked by the Cabinet with reviewing the issue, had rejected granting the ISF access to all of the ministry’s telecoms data.
“Handing over all the data poses a breach of people’s right to privacy,” he said, adding that those opposing the decision should amend Article 140 of 1999 from a law that regulates access to telecoms data to make it available to the ISF. Mikati was quick with his reply to Aoun, saying that Article 140 clearly states that the prime minister’s office had the prerogative to grant security agencies requested telecoms data in cases of terrorism and organized crime.
“According to Article 9 of the law, the defense and interior ministers have the right to intercept phone calls through a written request that is justified and has the approval of the prime minister. This is an order to gather information to combat terrorism, crimes again state security and organized crime,” a statement from Mikati’s media office said.
In anticipation of the expected confrontation during Wednesday’s Cabinet session, Minister of the Displaced Alaeddine Terro voiced the Progressive Socialist Party’s support for Mikati in the dispute over access to telecoms data.
“We call for giving the security agencies all that they need to facilitate their work in ongoing investigations without turning them into political disputes,” said Terro in a statement.
Meanwhile, sources at the Grand Serail also said Cabinet was likely to postpone its decision on the formation of a supervisory commission for elections due to the opposition of March 8 ministers against the body.
Unlike March 8 ministers who have rejected the formation of the commission before an agreement is reached on a new election law, President Michel Sleiman warned that he would suspend future Cabinet sessions if the issue was not on the top of the agenda this week.
The Legislation and Consultation Committee at the Justice Ministry handed a copy of its legal opinion meeting its deadline for the creation of the supervisory commission for parliamentary elections to all ministers prior to Wednesday’s session
The Legislation and Consultation Committee is an advisory body that provides legal opinions to ministries and the Cabinet and has the authority to provide rulings on issues.
“The deadline for the formation of the supervisory commission for elections [begins with] the start of officially accepting the names of candidates running for Parliament and not the day when a date for elections is officially set,” said the copy handed out by the committee.
Ministerial sources said that the opinion of the committee would result in postponing the issue to a future session. “Even if the issue is put to a vote, it will not receive enough support because of the opposition by March 8 ministers,” one source said.
Also on Cabinet’s agenda Wednesday is a report filed by the Foreign Affairs Ministry regarding the objections made by Lebanese officials over a new plan for cooperation between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Lebanese government.
According to the report, the Interior Ministry voiced its objection to the proposal submitted by the UNHCR.
“The Directorate General of General Security has studied the proposal for the agreement between UNHCR and Lebanon and argues that expanding the authority of the UNHCR would abolish Lebanon’s role with respect to granting people refugee status,” said the draft report.
The report also said that the proposal for the agreement submitted by the UNHCR had provided no clear definition for the term “refugee.”