07 March 2006

Omagh: the questions that MI5 has still to answer

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
07 March 2006

For almost eight years, MI5 kept intelligence about the 1998 Real IRA atrocity to itself. Before the agency takes over as the senior spying organisation in Ulster, it may have to explain why

Michael Gallagher can picture the scene, days after the Omagh bomb claimed the life of his son, Aidan, and 29 others, including a woman pregnant with twins. "Prince Charles was walking down the street through the rubble, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and all these other people," Mr Gallagher said in his soft, insistent way.

"At the same time people in MI5 would have sat like the rest of us watching it but didn't have the presence of mind to tell the senior investigating officer what they knew. What happened?"

It's a question that will not be answered easily. Nor is it the only question awaiting an explanation about MI5's previously undisclosed link to the intelligence failures before and after Omagh. With the agency due to take over intelligence primacy in Northern Ireland next year, the Government will be asking what the effects will be on that important transition.

Sir Hugh Orde indicated to the Policing Board last week that information withheld by MI5 - concerning a possible plot to bomb Omagh - did not handicap the bombing investigation. Mr Gallagher and some of the other Omagh relatives are not reassured: they feel that call would have been better made when the investigation was fresh, not nearly eight years later.

Others scrutinising the intelligence transition have their concerns. They note that MI5 failed to pass on the information to the police when the RUC was nominally in charge of intelligence gathering, and wonder what will happen when MI5 is in charge. "If that's what happened under police primacy, it's going to be worse when police don't' have primacy," said Alex Attwood, an SDLP member of the Policing Board.

It has now been 13 days since Sam Kinkaid, the outgoing PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, told the Omagh families that detectives had discovered a potentially crucial scrap of information that had been passed to MI5 four months before the bombing, but never reached the RUC.

The information was discovered when Detective Superintendent Norman Baxter, the man currently in charge of the Omagh investigation, recently travelled to America to find out what David Rupert knows.

Rupert, the 6ft 5ins American truck driver who infiltrated dissident republicans for the FBI, knows a lot about the people who bombed Omagh. He spent months in the company of Real IRA and Continuity IRA members, and his evidence sent Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt to jail in the Republic.

Although an FBI operative, Rupert's adventures in Ireland were handled in part by MI5. He communicated with the British agency by email and among the information retained by the FBI, Superintendent Baxter found the possible Omagh warning. In April, 1998, four months before the bombing, Rupert had warned MI5 of a plot to bomb "Derry or Omagh" with a Vauxhall Cavalier car. The particular plot he referred to was foiled.

The Cavalier was significant because it was the model of car later used in the attack - a model apparently preferred by dissident bombmakers because the suspension could be modified to disguise the weight of the load it was carrying.

Last week, Sir Hugh Orde was asked to address the issues in front of the Policing Board. He said he was constrained about what he could say, because Jonesborough man Sean Hoey (36), is still awaiting trial for the bombing.

He did not comment in detail about how the intelligence could have been acted upon before the bombing, although he noted that with hindsight it is easier to see significant details like the type of car and potential target town than it is in advance, when hundreds of pieces of information are being assessed and little is known for certain.

He made one point forcefully. "It's the view of the senior investigating officer - who I spoke to only two hours ago - that the Security Services did not withhold intelligence that was relevant or would have progressed the Omagh inquiry," he said.

Sir Hugh did not say nothing was withheld, although it was subsequently reported that he had. Information was withheld, but Sir Hugh argued that it was not relevant to the investigation. The people Rupert warned about, he said, had been involved in a different dissident IRA cell from the one that bombed Omagh.

But Sir Hugh's answer begged further questions. Why, for example, if the material was not relevant, had four senior PSNI officers met the Omagh families to brief them about it? And in 1998, shouldn't it have been the detective in charge of the investigation - not MI5 - who decided how relevant the warning was?

A crucial point is that the evidence was not passed for years afterwards, despite ample opportunities to do so.

The RUC reviewed the Omagh investigation and was not told. A Policing Board review was not told, in spite of a request to MI5. Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan has been aware of Rupert's alert for several years, but will not say whether she found out from MI5 or the Garda, who got access to the FBI emails before McKevitt's trial.

"The point is the police didn't have sight of it," said Mr Attwood. "If that's what happened under police primacy, it's going to be worse when police don't' have primacy.

"That situation is going to be compounded when MI5 is handed primacy.

"How can police be confident that in the new order they will see everything?"

MI5 is keeping mum. The Home Office and NIO have repeatedly declined requests from this newspaper to talk to MI5 about the intelligence transition.

The Omagh families have asked to meet Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5, as well as Sir Hugh, about the consequences of the Rupert information.

The Omagh relatives have become a powerful lobby group. They won unprecedented funding from the Government for a civil case against suspected bombers, and they became the ultimate arbiter in the dispute between the Ombudsman and Sir Ronnie Flanagan. They may be difficult for MI5 to ignore.

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