Peter Ryan, NSW police commissioner from 1996 to 2002, was the target of a secret bugging operation conducted by a group of senior officers under his command.

Two retired officers, assistant commissioner Clive Small and internal affairs commander Mal Brammer, made the claim under oath while giving evidence to an upper house inquiry this week. Their version of events is supported today by journalist/author Sue Williams, who wrote Peter Ryan: The Inside Story published in 2002.

She told Crikey: “Commissioner Peter Ryan always had a very strong suspicion his office and home were bugged as sometimes snippets of private conversations he’d had would turn up in the newspapers, or be reported on radio and TV.

“He always felt he was being white-anted by his enemies in the NSW Police Service, and this was just one more way they had of finding out about his life and then attempting to undermine him, both professionally and personally. When he raised such suspicions, however, he was routinely accused of being paranoid, and he had no proof for his suspicions.”

Revelations about the bugging of Ryan’s phones carry massive political and legal implications. How was it possible for senior police to bug their own commissioner and get away with it? And if they could bug the commissioner, why not the premier, the police minister or the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph? Did the bugging stop after Ryan was driven out of office over a decade ago, or does it continue to this day?

In the wake of Justice James Wood’s 1995-97 royal commission into NSW police corruption, police minister Paul Whelan handpicked Peter Ryan, a “clean skin” from the English constabulary, to weed out remaining corrupt elements and reform the administration.

After some initial success, Ryan became the target of an intense media campaign, as Williams reported in her book:

“Radio 2UE’s Alan Jones, who seemed to have turned against Ryan in the middle of 2001, just after [the late solicitor] John Marsden condemned the police service for the investigation into his life, was savaging him with an incredible degree of venom every morning.”

Jones called for the police force to be “put into receivership” until confidence was restored in its leadership. A few days later he told listeners: “The time has come to bring down the curtain on the five-year reign of Peter Ryan.”

Williams told Crikey today: “I remember at the time Ryan felt it was incredible that he was over here, trying to do a job to the best of his ability, but he was being so ruthlessly countered. He never found out who exactly it was, but he suspected a number of his fellow officers at the higher echelons. As a result he removed some and distanced himself from many, leading to accusations that he felt he was too good for them and weakening his position.”

During Wednesday’s parliamentary hearing into a chain of police rivalries and cover-ups, former assistant commissioner Clive Small, celebrated for his role in the arrest and prosecution of backpacker serial killer Ivan Milat, told MPs that the bugging of Ryan’s phone was “an extremely serious matter” that deserved further investigation.

Looking at the embarrassed expression on the faces of the all-party committee members, I concluded that they didn’t agree. They just wanted the whole thing to go away.

The committee’s final report will be completed on February 25.