AP front 1 - 2022

21 March 2002 Edition

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Castlereagh raid was inside job

Finucane, Nelson, Omagh files missing?

Special Branch and British Military Intelligence officers are to be questioned in connection with the illegal entry and theft of secret documents at Castlereagh Interrogation Centre last weekend.

Initial official reports of the incident, in which three men entered one of the most secure institutions in the North to delve through highly classified material for almost an hour, sought to play down the significance of the material kept in the office.

The level of inside knowledge required to carry out the raid suggests that that gang knew what they were looking for and knew where to look. Despite the spin, one indisputable fact remains clear. The nature of the raid presupposes a very specific motive and the material netted by the gang is unlikely to be anything other than highly significant.

In recent months, we have seen the killing of Special Branch informer and UDA quartermaster William Stobie, days after he publicly supported the call for an independent inquiry into the killing of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane.

Loyalist Stephen McCullagh was found dead in suspicious circumstances just hours after offering Special Branch information about the sectarian killing of Daniel McColgan. McCullagh was never seen alive again after entering a police barracks.

Going back further, the Stevens inquiry investigating Crown forces collusion, including the role of Special Branch and covert British army units, had their offices torched. Stevens' predecessor John Stalker, investigating the summary execution of unarmed republicans by a covert unit directed by the Special Branch, was deliberately discredited and removed.

The announcement on Wednesday by British Secretary of State John Reid to call an inquiry into the Castlereagh raid further exposes the fact that there are no mechanisms for democratic accountability of the Special Branch and their activities.

Moreover, the British government's failure to implement the Patten Report's requirements for a new beginning for policing has left the Policing Board powerless to investigate this matter.

The Special Branch is a force within a force, immune from accountability and immune from scrutiny. Recent promotions of Special Branch officers into senior positions of authority throughout the PSNI have polluted any hopes of a new policing ethos within the force.

They have to go. There cannot be a new beginning to policing while Special Branch still exists.




The raiders passed through a security checkpoint staffed by an armed guard, gained entry to rooms secured by coded keypads and opened secure cabinets. They knew what they were looking for and they knew where to look.

Castlereagh, the Special Branch's notorious interrogation centre, is ringed by 20-metre steel fencing, with watchtowers and floodlights and deemed impenetrable. Inside, a network of elaborate security systems has been designed to protect some of the northern state's most dangerous secrets.

Clearly operating with an insider's knowledge, the raiders struck within the very heartland of Special Branch covert operations. They targeted an office where the Special Branch runs its network of informers and agents, an important nerve centre for British military intelligence and inner sanctum of counter insurgency plots and ploys.

According to reports, having already breached the outer security cordon, three unmasked men entered the first floor Special Branch office between 10pm and 11pm on Sunday night. One of the men had an English accent. A Special Branch officer on the premises at the time was subsequently bound and gagged.

The men would have had to produce identification at the perimeter barrier, at the door and a security pass for rooms inside. The gang gained access to secret files and removed a number of documents, described as 'highly sensitive'. It is not known if the gang made copies of any other material. They were certainly on the premises long enough to have downloaded information from computers.

The three men entered and left the complex without being challenged.

A PSNI source within Castlereagh has admitted the raid must have involved "someone closely connected to us". And not just 'close'; even within the Special Branch not every officer would have had specific knowledge to access the security systems protecting the most 'sensitive' material.

"I have worked with the Special Branch for 30 years," a former RUC officer admitted, "and I wouldn't know how to do this kind of thing."

One of the key reasons why the PSNI remains unacceptable to most nationalists is the failure of the British government to curtail the power of the Special Branch. British Military Intelligence introduced guidelines giving Special Branch primacy within the force. Through the Special Branch, MI5 controlled the RUC.

The ruthless manner with which Special Branch operates has recently been highlighted by a number of former RUC officers. RUC Detective Johnston Brown challenged a Special Branch decision not to pursue a self-confessed loyalist killer and was subsequently subjected to death threats and threats of plots against his son.

Commenting on the Castlereagh raid, Sinn Féin Assembly Chief Whip Alex Maskey called for an immediate independent investigation and said the Ombudsman's Office should carry out a thorough investigation.

"Castlereagh has been the centre of Special Branch operations in the Six counties for 30 years," he said. "It is from Castlereagh that shoot-to-kill operations, the collusion with loyalists and the torture of people was directed."

Describing Castlereagh as "probably the most secure barracks in Europe", Maskey rubbished the break-in theory.

"We are asked to believe that the offices at the very centre of this fortress were raided, files were removed and the people involved were not seen and no one knows how or why this happened. This could not have happened without the sanction of senior figures within the Special Branch or British Intelligence."

Claims by Chief Constable and former head of Special Branch, Ronnie Flanagan that documents seized by the gang do not contain the names of Special Branch agents and are not related to ongoing investigations may be little more than a pedantic smokescreen.

Significantly Flanagan failed to confirm that no details concerning Special Branch agents were contained within the missing documents. Similarly the status of an investigation can be other that ongoing.

Consider recent revelations concerning Crown forces collusion in the attempted murder of three RUC officers in Cushendall and the subsequent killing of RUC Sergeant Joe Campbell in 1977. The Ombudsman's Office has been approached but an investigation has yet to be initiated.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that the Stevens team investigating the assassination of Pat Finucane has uncovered evidence that the Special Branch gave guns to loyalist killers.

Forensic tests have shown that a Special Branch officer gave a weapon to a known loyalist killer that was later used in the killings of six Catholics. Relatives of those killed will be informed.

The Special Branch has already confirmed the leak, which is expected to be included in a report schedule to be handed over to the PSNI by the Stevens team in May. The Special Branch will claim that the incident was 'isolated' and the result of a 'blunder' but one source has already described the revelation as "the tip of the iceberg."

The news broke as figures showing that of 20,000 official complaints made against the RUC in the last six years only nine officers have been successfully prosecuted. Over 6,000 files were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions arising out of the complaints.

Of 24 recommended for prosecution, two officers have been found guilty and jailed, one has received a suspended sentence, six have been fined, one case is pending and 14 officers have been found not guilty.

"These figures show that the DPP and the judicial system are incapable of policing the police," said Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly. "It backs up what nationalists have always believed. The RUC/PSNI are above the law, regardless of what crimes they have committed."


No confidence in British inquiry


The British Secretary of State John Reid MP has announced an independent inquiry into the 'break-in' and theft of sensitive documents at a Special Branch office inside the heavily guarded Castlereagh Police complex in East Belfast. His choice of career NIO civil servant Sir John Chilcott to head that inquiry, however, will inspire little confidence. The opinion of former Special Branch supremo now soon to be retired Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan that no lives have been endangered because of the security breach similarly lacks credibility.

On St Patrick's night, three men entered a controlled access area of the complex, assaulted and tied up a Special Branch officer and then made off with a number of documents. In a statement on Tuesday, the Secretary of State described the raid as a breach of 'national security'.

Given the location of the internal office and the security surrounding the complex, rumours are rampant that this was an inside job.

The Unionist Mayor of Belfast, Jim Rodgers, has already blamed the 'security services' for the theft while SDLP spokesman Alban Maginness has talked of a scandal of 'Watergate' proportions.

Speculation regarding the content of the stolen files has reached fever pitch, with some suggestions that they may have contained top-secret information on 'intelligence assets', ie informers.

It seems ironic that the theft of documents would provoke the immediate announcement of an independent review while credible evidence of Special Branch collusion in actual murders has not resulted in an independent inquiry.

This is not the first occasion when the 'dirty war' has led to bizarre behaviour among the various agencies involved. On 10 January 1990, as preparations were underway to arrest British Army agent Brian Nelson, a mysterious fire destroyed the office of the investigation team who had been brought in from England to investigate allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries. The team was led by John Stevens and was based at a 'secure' RUC premises in Seapark.

Nelson, an agent of the British Army Force Research Unit (FRU), was involved in the assassination of Pat Finucane. Last year it was claimed by a former FRU agent, Martin Ingram, that the break-in and fire was the work of a Controlled Methods of Entry unit of the British Army, based at Repton Manor in England.

Stevens is presently involved in the third investigation into the activities of FRU and the killing of Pat Finucane and detectives from his team seized 'large quantities of documents' from British Army HQ in Lisburn in August 2000.

Last December, William Stobie, the Special Branch agent who supplied the weapons used in the murder of Pat Finucane, was shot dead shortly after the collapse of a criminal trial. Loyalist paramilitaries claimed the killing but there was speculation that the elimination of such an important witness to a future inquiry served the purposes of Special Branch.

The sensitive information that Special Branch keeps in its files may well include a taped confession from the man suspected of the killing of Pat Finucane. It was revealed in a television documentary last year that this had been withheld from the Stevens team. The individual who boasted of the killing fled the North after Stobie's murder and is believed to have sought protection from the Stevens team.

So who was responsible for the weekend raid? FRU, MI5, MI6, 14th Intelligence Unit, or even Special Branch? Answers on a postcard to John Gordon Kerr, Military Attache at the British Embassy in Beijing and former Officer Commanding FRU or to Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, former head of Special Branch.


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