18 September 2008 Edition
BBC TV 'Panorama' investigation claims...British Intelligence was listening to Omagh bombers
BY LAURA FRIEL
BRITISH INTELLIGENCE was tracking and listening to the bombers on the day of the Omagh attack and in the days and weeks prior to the bombing, according to the BBC’s Panorama documentary programme screened on Monday night.
In August 1998, 29 people were killed, including a woman pregnant with twins, and others were injured when a bomb exploded in Omagh town centre on a Saturday afternoon. According to the programme, journalists working for Panorama established that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was recording mobile phone conversations between some of the bombers as they drove to the market town of Omagh.
The revelation that British Intelligence was listening to the bombers, both on the day of the bombing and in the weeks leading up to it, raises new questions about whether the attack could have been prevented.
The documentary cites several “well-placed sources” as saying that GCHQ was monitoring the bombers’ mobile phone calls at the request of Special Branch. The big question is whether GCHQ’s monitoring was ‘live’ or simply recorded. And if they were listening ‘live’, then it comes down to a question of incompetence or complicity.
The Omagh bombing was the last in a series of almost identical bomb attacks carried out by the same group over a number of months. Two weeks earlier, an attack in Banbridge involving a 500lb car-bomb was almost identical to the Omagh bombing.
According to Panorama, the bombers used the same mobile phones, same code words and even made the same mistakes when attempting to telephone a warning. Significantly, civilian casualties had only just been avoided at Banbridge. The Omagh bombing is described by the programme makers as a “carbon copy” of Banbridge. There could have been little doubt about what was about to happen, says Panorama.
It’s almost inconceivable that, when a range of intelligence sources began to identify another, almost identical, bomb plot in the making, and Special Branch requested assistance in monitoring the bombers, GCHQ was only tasked with recording mobile phone exchanges between the bombers.
The notion that GCHQ was only recording conversations becomes even more inconceivable given the fact that mobile phone exchanges had already been detected as playing a key role on the day of the Banbridge bombing on 1 August. This just isn’t the kind of long-finger surveillance operation where recording could ever have been seen as appropriate.
So the question becomes: is GCHQ guilty of unbelievable incompetence, inexcusable carelessness or did someone, somewhere – for whatever reason – decide to let the bombing proceed? We already know British agents were operating within the group and there would be those who would want to protect their cover.
We already know, by the response after the bombing, that GCHQ were preoccupied with avoiding any public admission that they had in fact been monitoring conversations both sides of the border. So much so, in fact, that they denied detectives investigating the bombing vital information which resulted in a nine-month delay.
No doubt this contributed to what a report by the then Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan described as the subsequent investigation being dogged by “failure of leadership, poor judgment and lack of urgency”.
The spectre of a decision somewhere by someone to allow the bombing to proceed was also raised in the Ombudsman’s report. A statement submitted by a Garda detective sergeant claimed he had informed a senior Garda member of the bombing threat, only to be told “we are going to let this one go through”.
According to the statement, another member of the Garda who was present remained silent and looked at the ground. When the detective asked, “What if somebody is killed?”, he alleged the senior officer referred to two recent bombings in Moira and Newtownhamilton in which, despite considerable damage, no one had been injured.
Of course, it is unclear who the “we” mentioned by the Garda actually referred to. It could be just the Garda but in the days of cross-border co-operation it could also imply a cross-border decision. Anyway, it is clear from the conversation that “letting this one through” did not mean simply letting the bombers cross the border to be intercepted and stopped by the RUC. It meant allowing the bombing to take place.
If the bombers’ objective was to destabilise the Peace Process and undermine the ability of republicans to broker a power-sharing deal with unionism, then in this they had one ideological ally – the British securocrats. A group of mavericks within the British intelligence community together with elements within Special Branch who are not only opposed to the Peace Process but have displayed a willingness to interfere with the political process.
In the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bombing, both the British and Dublin Governments rushed through draconian legislation, circumventing pressure to revoke repressive laws in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement. This is not the first time such a tactic has been used.
In 1972, collusion was suspected after a bombing, falsely attributed to republicans, coincided with a Dáil debate to amend the Offences against the State Act. In 1974, co-ordinated bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, which killed 33 civilians, were part of an attempt to bring down a power-sharing executive in the North.
GCHQ is based in Cheltenham, England, and has a capacity to eavesdrop on an international scale. It has a history of economic espionage as well as cold war skulduggery.