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28 March 2002 Edition

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An insider to probe an inside job


John Reid's appointment of British spook John Chilcot to head the inquiry will ensure that the full facts behind the incident will never reach the light of independent public scrutiny
Amidst continuing speculation about the possible perpetrators and motives behind what British Secretary of State described as a breach in 'national security', one fact at least became clear.

John Reid's appointment of former NIO permanent secretary and British spook, John Chilcot to head the inquiry will ensure that the full facts behind the incident will never reach the light of independent public scrutiny.

On St Patrick's Day, a three-man gang with official identification walked into Special Branch offices in the top security Castlereagh complex in East Belfast and walked away with some of the British state's most dangerous secrets.

According to the British media, Tony Blair appointed Chilcot as a staff counsellor for British military intelligence with a part time brief in the Cabinet Office in 1999. The former NIO civil servant headed the British government's secret talks with Sinn Féin prior to the IRA ceasefire.

A number of Chilcot's close associates in MI5, Special Branch and British Army, were killed in a helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994.

But as with other controversial incidents in the past, while the British authorities may wish for a comprehensive cover up, like blood through bandages the truth has an uncomfortable habit of seeping out.

Ronnie Flanagan can huff and puff as much as he likes but when it comes to credibility, the house has already been blown down. Even the media is no longer prepared to accept the Chief Constable's words at face value.

Last week's 'assurances' by Flanagan that documents stolen from Castlereagh did not name any Special Branch informers were quickly exposed as a pedantic smokescreen.

It is now widely accepted that a comprehensive list of Special Branch agents and informers, encrypted only in the most marginal of ways, together with names and details of their handlers, was netted by the gang.

Likewise, Flanagan's claim that the theft of documents did not relate to any ongoing investigation did nothing to dispel speculation connecting the theft with the current controversy around the Omagh bombing investigation, or the ongoing inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane or Rosemary Nelson.

When it comes to public confidence, the Special Branch is now skating over such thin ice that, as Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain pointed out, if the motive behind the raid "was to embarrass or discredit the Special Branch, then breaking in and stealing a teapot would have been enough".

According to some reports, one of the 'sensitive' documents taken by the gang was a personal notebook belonging to Superintendent Brian McVicker. His internal review of the original Omagh investigation was the basis of the Ombudsman's recent report that was highly critical of the Chief Constable and Special Branch.

The notebook diary is believed to contain a handwritten account by McVicker compiled during his probe that includes details of a close association between a covert British Army unit, FRU (now believed to be operating under the name of the Joint Services Group) and one of the central players in the Omagh bombing.

FRU operatives are amongst those suspected of carrying out the Castlereagh raid. According to the media, the three men entered the top security complex using British Army identification and indicated they were "for the green huts".

Apparently in a yard within the Castlereagh complex stand a number of green huts that are occupied by "easily the most underground unit in the British Army," wrote Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times. According to Clarke, that unit, formerly the FRU, now the JSG, is responsible for handling all of the British Army's undercover agents in the Belfast urban area, with responsibility for Lisburn City and larger towns like Ballymena.

And the motive?

"One beneficiary of the debacle will be MI5, which stands to gain from any undermining of the PSNI's position as the lead agency in anti-terrorist intelligence in Northern Ireland," wrote Clarke.

The Sunday Tribune also places its wager on the FRU as the most likely perpetrators behind the Castlereagh raid. Curiously the Tribune, never a paper to underestimate its own importance, believes it inadvertently sparked the whole thing off.

The day before the raid, British Military Intelligence contacted the newspaper, apparently under the misapprehension that the Tribune was about to disclose the true identity of the Special Branch agent turned whistleblower known only as Kevin Fulton.

In fact, Fulton appears to have been inadvertently named by the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post. Listing some of those seemingly put at risk by the raid, Frank Connolly named Fulton as "Peter Keeley, the name used by the agent who claims that before the 1998 Omagh bombing he tipped off his RUC Special Branch handlers about a planned attack in the north".

Further rumours suggested that Fulton was about to reveal the identity of another British agent attached to the FRU and known only as 'Steak/Stake Knife".

"According to FRU sources, Brian Nelson would 'look like a pussycat' compared to the activities of Stakeknife. That's why military intelligence are so desperate to protect him. Keeping him out of the public eye keeps their activities out of the public eye," wrote Neil Mackay.

"It would be tantamount to being exposed as running a Latin American-style death squad if the truth came out," a source told Mackay.

The subsequent raid, argued the Tribune, can be understood as an attempt by the British military to protect their agent, presumably by removing any details of Stakeknife from Special Branch files.

For Ed Moloney's failing grasp on reality, it's more likely to be a British government plot to 'geld' the Special Branch and "pave the way for Sinn Féin to join the police board".

Reiterating unionist opinion, Moloney wrote: "Sinn Féin's participation in policing arrangements is a pearl beyond price as far as the British government is concerned. Gelding the Special Branch could pave the way for that."

Far fetched? "It is for sure but no more far fetched or fanciful than suggesting that the British bombed Monaghan or Dublin or that they set up the murder of Pat Finucane," Moloney concluded.

Of course, pointing the finger at the FRU is perfectly plausible but in the murky world of Britain's covert war, who knows who is acting on behalf of whom? It would not be the first time the FRU has taken the rap to cover the tracks of Special Branch.

'Misdemeanours' are more easily explained away when attached to a covert 'rogue' unit than those involving a core institution of the Northern state. And the conspiracy at the heart of this state isn't that hard to detect. It is simply this.

In the interests of British occupation and in the face of a popular uprising against sectarian misrule, under the guise of running informers the British state has sanctioned the murderous activities of spies, assassins and saboteurs acting outside the rule of law to wage a vicious covert war on dissenting citizens within the state's own jurisdiction.

And even if the FRU steals Special Branch files, who are they protecting? The FRU? The Special Branch? MI5? The British Army? The British government? The British state?

After all, it's all the same firm.

John Reid's appointment of British spook John Chilcot to head the inquiry will ensure that the full facts behind the incident will never reach the light of independent public scrutiny

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