28 March 2012
Inside Castlereagh: Files stolen from Special Branch HQ
Sir Colin Smith was Chief Constable of Thames Valley police
before joining Her Majestys Inspector of Constabulary in
1991. Appointments to the HMIC are made by the Crown on the recommendation
of the Secretary of State. There is no open public competition
for the posts. Traditionally, all appointments were drawn from
the senior ranks of the police, but since 1993 there have been
some non-police officers appointed. Sir Ronnie Flanagan, on his
retirement, was the most recent appointment to be made to the
HMIC, notwithstanding the Police Ombudsman's criticisms of his
judgement as "flawed". The Chief Inspector of the HMIC
is the most powerful official in British policing after the Head
of the Police Department in the Home Office. The role of the
HMIC is to examine and improve the efficiency of the police service.
It also has a responsibility for making sure that any recommendations
made following an inquiry, such as the Stalker/Sampson inquiry,
would be fully implemented. Each of Her Majestys Inspectors
is responsible for a number of police forces. Since his appointment
in 1991 Smith has had responsibility for the RUC for at least
Chilcot and Smith's terms of reference are to establish a) how unauthorised access was gained to Castlereagh, b) the extent of any damage caused to national security, c) the adequacy of action subsequently taken to mitigate any such damage and to prevent unauthorised access there and in similar buildings elsewhere, and d) any wider lessons to be learnt. The Chilcot/Smith review will report directly to Reid who is already cautioning that "it is not easy to get answers in Northern Ireland" and that "no one can guarantee anything in Northern Ireland". The prospects of the report being published are remote. The government has yet to acknowledge the existence of FRU or similar units and Reid himself when at the Defence Ministry refused to answer parliamentary questions on FRU. The last parliamentary question on FRU (13 December 1999) drew the response that the "Force intelligence Unit" (!) provides "analytical and security advice to assist the RUC in defeating terrorism".
At 7.00 am on 30 March armed members of the PSNI forcibly entered the building in which the Pat Finucane Centre is based (the Pat Finucane Centre runs a major website on Northern Ireland policing controversies and can be found at www.serve.com/pfc/). The purpose allegedly was to search the offices of Tar Abhaile, on the floor above the PFC. A private flat on the ground floor was also entered. PFC, when they arrived at work at 9.00 am, were denied access to their office. They contacted two members of the management committee who were also denied access to the building on the grounds that they were likely to interfere with the search. Later that day it emerged that the offices of Cúnamh, a victims support group which has helped numerous families of those killed or wounded on Bloody Sunday, were also raided and personal and confidential information relating to the families were taken. Other raids were carried out in Belfast leading to the arrest of four men and one woman. One of those arrested was a civilian worker from a loyalist estate in East Belfast. A West Belfast Sinn Féin MLA member immediately condemned the arrests and raids as ridiculous and highly provocative. There were more arrests on 4 April and PSNI have threatened further raids.
Eight of the nine people detained were subsequently released. One man from the New Lodge area of Belfast was subsequently charged with possessing documents containing information which could be useful to terrorists planning or carry out an act of violence, contrary to the Terrorism Act 2000. For a couple of weeks, no details were given about the documents and police sources briefed that they were not linked to the Castlereagh break-in. This changed when unofficial police briefings said that the documents contained an "IRA hitlist" of Tory politicians (even though one such politician subsequently spent a day wandering around Crossmaglen in order to prove that there were "no no-go areas in the UK".) Following the arrests, a story began to circulate that an American man who previously worked in Castlereagh as a chef had republican connections. He had moved from the US to Belfast several years ago. Initially, he worked in a Belfast restaurant and then was employed as a chef in Antrim Road Police station before moving to the Castlereagh police complex. He returned to the US sometime before the raid and PSNI detectives have travelled to the United States to interview him. According to the Irish Times (10 April 2002) "senior police sources are now following one line of inquiry only and that is one of IRA involvement". Police reportedly told Trimble that the IRA was responsible within 24 hours of the break-in (Irish Times, 10.4.02).
The Castlereagh burglary and subsequent police raids come at a time when great attention is being paid to police reform. On 5 April, the first batch of 44 PSNI trainees, including 13 women, recruited under the 50/50 Protestant/Catholic requirements of the Police Act, graduated from their initial training. On the same day, the new police uniforms and badge were introduced. In the government's eyes, much of the credibility of the re-branding of the RUC rests on attracting Catholics into the PSNI so that the conservative target of the Patten Report can be met. Patten presented a detailed model of RUC downsizing and new recruitment, designed to achieve a 30% Catholic PSNI by 2011.
A private consortium of companies including Deloitte & Touche, Pearn Kandola, AV Browne and BMI Health Services, operating under the name of Consensia, began advertising for new police recruits in February 2001. It has spent over £540,000 on advertising and claims to have received 20,000 requests for application forms, 40% of which have been returned as applications. The selection process takes about five months. Applicants are first of all screened for age and nationality requirements before going through a series of selection tests, including medical, physical competence and firearms handling tests. Those who get through all these tests join a pool of "qualified candidates" and it is from this pool that the 50/50 recruitment takes place. Initially, much publicity was given to the level of interest from Catholics, but the crucial issue is how many Catholics make it to the qualified candidate pool. This is what determines whether the Patten targets can be met or not. In the first recruitment round, 550 applicants made it to the pool (less than 7% of applicants) of whom 154 (or 28%) were described as Catholics. 33% of the total were women. These 154 "Catholics" were joined by 154 Protestants to become trainee police officers. The total of 308 for the first round is in fact 17% below the Patten model of 370 new recruits each year. Of the 47 who began training in November, one was transferred due to injury and two were expelled on disciplinary grounds. This suggests a trainee drop-out rate of 6 per cent.
The second round of recruitment attracted 4,700 applicants, but 1,200 of these were repeats from the first round. 14% of the applications were from people living outside of Northern Ireland, more than three-quarters of whom are said to be "Catholics". This suggests that up to 40% of the "Catholics" who make it to the qualified candidate pool are from outside of Northern Ireland. Although Consensia collects post code information from candidates, it has not revealed what proportion of the qualified candidate pool are Catholics from Northern Ireland or indeed if the recruitment exercise is succeeding in getting significant and proportionate numbers from republican communities into the pool.
Recruitment is one side of the coin. Downsizing is the other. In the past few months, there have been increasing claims that police numbers are falling to "dangerously" low levels. This tends to be associated with the police role in North Belfast where on-street conflict has been a daily feature since loyalists began barring school children and their parents from walking to Holy Cross primary school in September 2001. £26m has been added to the police budget since last August, ostensibly to police North Belfast. Reports of the violence typically begin with the numbers of police officers injured - the Police Federation says that over 800 officers have been injured in the last six months. Certainly, rates of absenteeism through injury and/or sickness have risen substantially in the period since the 1994 ceasefires and there is some anecdotal evidence from the insurance industry and elsewhere that many claims are exaggerated, if not bogus. This is linked in some officers' eyes to the police reform process and the loss of the primary objective of counter-terrorism. For instance, one officer has claimed that:
"The morale in this organisation is lower now than it was during the worst days of the Troubles, absolutely rock bottom. Then everyone was completely dedicated in trying to create circumstances in which it was more difficult for terrorists. You had a goal, you had something to work towards. I was slightly injured myself in a bomb attack some years back and I didn't take a day's sick then. The next day I was back at work because I was still able to walk and talk and I didn't want to put any further pressure on my colleagues. That's all changed now. If someone threw a stone at me now I'd take six months on the sick." (Ulster Gazette, 8 November 2001)
Police sickness rates have reached very high levels in Northern Ireland. In 1992, the average days absence through sickness per year per officer was 14 days (almost three working weeks). This rose to 22 days in 2000 and the current figure is 24 (the figure in Britain is around 12). A "sickness management policy" was introduced for the first time in December 2000 which included a provision barring people from promotion if their sickness level exceeded 14 days per year (the legitimacy of which was recently upheld in a judicial review case, then overturned by the Appeal Court). The management target is to bring the figure down from 24 to 16 days.
On the day the RUC changed its name to PSNI there were 7,173 regular police officers and 2,279 in the full-time reserve - a total of 9,452. These were supplemented by 1,032 part-time reservists. The uniformed officers were supported by a total of 3,465 other staff. As of 6 March, the number of regular PSNI officers had fallen to 7,091 (not including full- and part-time reservists) compared to the Patten target for 2002 of 7,215, but this will be supplemented before the end of the year by the 308 new recruits. Patten projected 2,106 leavers in year one of police reform (the year 2001): the actual number of leavers was 1,069 regulars and 129 full-time reservists. The police continue to be supported by 14,500 troops (2,000 less than in 1998).
While the idea of a numbers crisis is, therefore, less than convincing, there is evidently some division within the police service between traditionalists and modernisers. The former, with considerable political support in Ireland and Britain, seek to maximise the public order and counter terrorist roles. For example, it was revealed in January that the police continued until very recently to purchase vast quantities of plastic bullets. 22 of these were used operationally in the year 2000 while 76,320 were purchased (46,000 in 2001) (Hansard 9 Jan 2002, WA col. 878). At an estimated cost of £6.80 per bullet, this means that the RUC spent over £2.5m on plastic bullets from 1995 to 2001. Regarding counter-terrorism, it is not surprising to find that changes to Special Branch have been minimal. The second report from the Oversight Commissioner (appointed to monitor progress on the implementation of Patten) stated that no systematic plan for the reduction of Special Branch was available, the amalgamation of support units had not begun and that "documentary evidence of administrative progress on issues involving Special Branch was not available as of 1 October, 2001". About 80 out 850 Special Branch officers are thought to have retired. The latest complaint comes from a group of officers at inspector level who say that Special Branch are taking advantage of the unusual number of vacancies at superintendent level to move their people into senior positions (Irish News 20 March 2002).
IRA or JSG?
Institutional and political tensions over police reform may provide part of the background for the Castlereagh break-in, but they do not provide an immediate explanation. From all the speculation so far, two main scenarios emerge. The first is that the IRA were responsible, although it has denied involvement. The initial police position was that Castlereagh was an "inside job": Flanagan himself said he would be "most surprised" if "paramilitaries or civilians" were responsible for the break-in (Independent 25 March 2002). However it was not long after Flanagan retired that police sources then decided that the IRA were the prime suspects.
The Castlereagh documents had been taken to Derry and then across the border, so the story ran. There is no question that the IRA would have an interest in the identities of informers and their handlers, particularly since security sources have, in recent years, played up the role of a "double agent" within the IRA known as "steaknife" (or stakeknife - spellings vary). It would also relish any disruption of Special Branch. There have been reports of up to 250 Special Branch officers being told to move house and of general panic among informers. On the other hand, the house and office raids, which might in some people's minds lend credibility to the idea of IRA responsibility, seem to have been "show raids". Some reports have pointed out that computer disks were arbitrarily selected, that children's clothes and videos were seized and that the questioning of those detained lacked purpose and seriousness. Unusually, some of the seized property was returned within days. The disinterested nature of the questioning points towards the raids having other purposes, including the planting or removing of listening devices. A Sunday Times article (14 April, 2002) claimed the removal of covert bugs was the motive behind the raids.
The police have pushed the idea that some of those detained had links with the American employed as a chef at the Castlereagh complex, and it is possible that this man was in a position to pass on Castlereagh canteen gossip to republicans. On the other hand, one detainee complained to the Irish News that he was arrested because the police had access to the American's mobile phone records which showed the American had his number. This was because he worked as a voluntary counsellor with an organisation which the American had approached for help. His only contact was over the phone - he never met the man. This account does suggest that police are prepared to carry out raids solely on the basis of telephone billing records. But none of this explains how a chef would have access to, and knowledge of, core Special Branch intelligence facilities within the Castlereagh complex. A further police briefing claimed to the BBC that they were "interested in a number of mobile phones that were being used in west Belfast in the period leading up to the break-in and on the night of the robbery itself", phones which had since gone quiet. Calls to a number of public telephone boxes in west Belfast were also reported top be part of the investigation, suggesting widespread use of telephone taps and connection data monitoring.
The second scenario is that the Castlereagh break-in was designed to remove and conceal documents in order to protect intelligence interests. This would be entirely consistent with past patterns and practice. If FRU could, as has been suggested, set fire to the Stevens Inquiry office once, it could certainly thwart the inquiry again. "Stevens 3" is poised to report, notwithstanding continuing delays caused by "on-going criminal investigations" into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane and the recent murder of a key loyalist involved in the affair, William Stobie. When Stevens was appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1999, Hugh Orde was put in charge of the day-to-day running of the Stevens inquiry. Orde is deputy assistant commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police and was one of the detectives who investigated the Stephen Lawrence murder. He has applied for the post of PSNI Chief Constable.
Orde is reportedly waiting to interview Brigadier Gordon Kerr, currently the British military attaché in Beijing. Kerr was head of FRU at the time of the Finucane murder which involved British Army agent Brian Nelson. Stevens' first collusion inquiry netted Nelson and Kerr gave evidence at Nelson's trial in camera as "Colonel J". Kerr's evidence was that Nelson's ten year service as an agent had saved many lives.
There is little doubt that British intelligence has been fighting hard to prevent an independent public inquiry into Finucane's murder. An example of this appeared in the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune recently when the newspaper published extracts of an affidavit to the London High Court sworn by Brigadier Arundell David Leakey, Director of Military Operations in the MoD (from 1997) and in overall charge of all military operations in Northern Ireland including covert intelligence gathering and the work of Joint Support Group (formerly known as the Force Research Unit) (Sunday Tribune 14 April, 2002). The affidavit was presented as part of a court hearing held in camera in February 1998 to consider an application by MoD for an injunction to prevent the publication of Nicolas Davies' book "Ten-Thirty-Three: the inside story of Britain's secret killing machine in Northern Ireland" (Mainstream Publishing 1999). The book, whose title comes from Brian Nelson's code number, confirms collusion between British Army intelligence units and loyalist paramilitaries at the highest level, including two attempts to assassinate Alex Maskey (Sinn Fein MLA and leader of the SF local councillors in Belfast). It also confirms what many observers strongly suspected was an official policy of withdrawing police and army patrols from areas prior to the entry of loyalist murder squads, using "restriction orders" (see for example Amnesty International's Report on Political Killings in Northern Ireland).
In the High Court challenge the MoD succeeded in getting control of the manuscript and Davies' computer, deleting around 10,000 words before allowing the heavily censored version to be published.
The Sunday Tribune story was written by Ed Moloney and Lin Solomon. Moloney is the journalist to whom UDA activist William Stobie gave details of loyalist collaboration with Special Branch and military intelligence at the time of Finucane's murder. Stobie was arrested soon after the murder but charges were dropped. He told his story to Moloney as a safeguard against further arrest. Moloney was instructed to keep the testimony secret unless Stobie found himself in court again over Finucane, which he did last year as a result of further investigations by the Stevens inquiry. Moloney released the testimony and the RUC responded by pursuing Moloney through the courts for his original notes. They were not successful on this occasion. A key witness for the new Stobie trial withdrew evidence on grounds of ill-health and the trial collapsed. Shortly after his release and call for an independent inquiry, Stobie himself was murdered (12 December 2001). Although claimed by the "Red Hand Defenders" it is widely assumed that ulterior motives of Special Branch and British intelligence are not far in the background. Shortly after Stobie's murder another senior loyalist, Ken Barrett, disappeared and is now thought to be under the protective custody of the Stevens team. Barrett is alleged to have confessed to shooting Finucane, a confession which was taped by two CID officers in 1991 but he was never charged because Special Branch intervened and subsequently "lost" the tape.
Leakey's affidavit provides direct evidence of how military intelligence views any possible inquiry into the work of Brian Nelson and the murder of Pat Finucane. It is based on a doctrine of total secrecy: "the effectiveness of the unit would be seriously damaged if the confidence of serving personnel and current agents in the complete secrecy which surrounds their operations were in any way impaired". The affidavit goes on: "the fact that Nelson pleaded guilty prevented the disclosure of large quantities of highly sensitive information in the course of the trial" [since many charges were dropped and no cross examination of witnesses occurred]. The Davies book, based on the experience of one of Nelson's former handlers, threatened to reveal what was prevented from coming out by Nelson's guilty plea. Leakey states:
"the disclosure of such information would be extremely
damaging to national security and to the public interest as well
as to the security of Nelson and his family. it could seriously
damage the confidence which agents or potential agents have or
would have in the ability of the Army and the Government to protect
their identity and thus their safety" (Sunday
Tribune 14 April, 2002, p12).
Another example of planning for cover-ups concerned the civil action threatened by the families of victims of the Dublin/Monaghan bombings of 1974 around which allegations of collusion are currently under investigation by Justice Henry Barron on behalf of the Irish government. A letter from the Treasury Solicitor dated 24 September 1999 showed that the British government considered a defence of "sovereign immunity" (Sunday Tribune 21 April 2002).
If one possibility is that the break-in was is some way concerned with damaging Stevens 3 and preventing an independent inquiry into Pat Finucane's murder, another is that the raid was designed to remove very specific evidence concerning an informer or contact records. An intriguing report in the Sunday Tribune (24 March 2002) by Sunday Herald journalist Neil Mackay suggested the Castlereagh raid was about removing evidence of agent "Stakeknife's" existence. The immediate threat comes from disaffected agents and informers (some linked to the "mole" group) who have been seeking better treatment from the government. One of these, "Kevin Fulton" an agent planted inside the Real IRA, has threatened to name Stakeknife (an IRA member turned informer). Fulton has irritated his former handlers by alleging in the Sunday People that information supplied by himself could have prevented the Omagh bombing. It was these reports which led to O'Loan's embarrassing investigation. So a further possibility is that the break-in was designed to remove material relating to the Omagh bombing, notably concerning an alleged second informer (in addition to Fulton) who may have been part of the bomb team.
The weekend of the Castlereagh raid, rumours flew through the intelligence community that Fulton's true identity was to be revealed in the Sunday Tribune, which had told distributors that it was doubling the normal print run (because of a paedophile story, in fact). Fulton was not "outed" but the raid went ahead as a precautionary measure in any event. Mackay further alleges that Stevens has been "sniffing around" Stakeknife, to the annoyance of military intelligence.
When Stevens reports, the political case for a full-blown independent judicial inquiry into collusion between security forces and loyalists, involving targeted murders, may become irresistible. The latest attempts to stall such an inquiry - the appointment of a judge (not yet named) to look into whether or not an inquiry is merited (!), and the insulting offer of £10,000 to Geraldine Finucane (Pat Finucane's widow) - have not impressed the UN's Human Rights Committee, lawyers within Britain, Ireland and the US, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. Whatever the outcome of the Castlereagh break-in, the pressure is on Special Branch and the intelligence services.
During April and following the Castlereagh break-in, the number of unattributed, unsubstantiated stories claiming that the IRA had broken the cease fire, was re-arming (with Russian guns) and was engaged in training "narco-terrorists" in Colombia and even helping Palestinians to make crude pipe bombs, reached fever pitch. Coinciding with congressional hearings on the IRA and Colombia, commentators began to report that "leaking and spinning" from anti-Agreement, anti-police reform Special Branch and intelligence sources was getting out of hand and worrying the government. It had accelerated since Flanagan's departure and, as the Guardian and ndependent speculated, appeared increasingly to be aimed at damaging Sinn Fein's election efforts in the May general election in the Irish Republic. This pattern of leak and spin has many historical precedents.
From a broader perspective, the break-in provides another incident which appears to suggest that the Special Branch and sections of the security services operate outside of the law. Notwithstanding numerous internal police inquiries - Stalker, Sampson, Stevens 1, Stevens 2, Stevens 3 - and one major external enquiry by the Ombudsman, the secret services appear to have been able to thwart all these and continue to operate as a fifth column with their own agenda within British and Irish politics. The establishment of an internal police inquiry into the raid, whose report, like all the other reports, will never be made public, will not increase the publics confidence in the police service. Similarly, the Chilcot/Smith inquiry will do little to enhance public accountability. Both men are far too closely associated with these services over many years and, if there is evidence that intelligence personnel have acted beyond the law, this is unlikely to be made public. The Labour government will no doubt continue to make sure that state secrets are never revealed. The intriguing question is why?
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