Omagh: GCHQ were monitoring the bombers – Panorama

Only now, ten years on, another flawed link in the evidential chain in the Omagh bomb case has been brought to light. According to the BBC Panorama programme’s investigator John Ware, the British Government’s signals intelligence arm GCHQ at Cheltenham, were monitoring the Omagh bombers on the fateful day and did not immediately pass the information on. Nuala O’Loan the former police ombudsman, has spoken out “ There are only a couple of main access routes into the town. It seems to me that road blocks could have been set up.” Ray White, former assistant chief constable in charge of crime and Special Branch for the PSNI is adamant that Special Branch officers told him they had asked for “live “ monitoring. It’s not as if they spun tapes and nobody bothered to listen in until later.

To the terribly vexed question of why the detectives investigating the atrocity were forced into the time-consuming task of trawling though six million phone records when Special Branch knew those details is added another question further back in the time line to which GCHQ has the answer. Why did GCHQ not hand over their monitoring details straight away? A GCHQ source is reported as saying they did so “within five or six hours.”. Ray White tells Ware: “ No, it was the middle of the next week before they were passed on to Special Branch”.
To the already established story of disconnection in the Omagh investigation, we have been given a new equally perplexing dimension. At the very least, could it be that GCHQ did not listen in live after all? And as regards passing on their evidence to the investigations, did they withhold it because intercept evidence couldn’t be used in court or they didn’t want their techniques exposed to a police inquiry? After the families’ civil action, the case for internal inquiry is compelling. Panorama is on BBC 1 at 8.30 tomorrow night (Monday 15 September). Update. Extracts from John Ware’s Sunday Telegraph account based on the programme are below the fold.
Comments on the Omagh bomb trial in which Sean Hooey was acquitted last December and the families’ ongoing civil action are subject to the libel laws and contempt of court .
“The mobiles used by the bombers in the scout car and the bomb car itself were registered to Eircell, a mobile provider then owned by the Irish government. GCHQ needed to crack their coded electronic signatures in order to listen and track the phones.

Mobile manufacturers are required to give the algorithm of each new model to the Government, which passes it on to GCHQ. GCHQ is not thought to have had the signature for the mobile in the bomb car… it seems highly unlikely that Eircell was party to that arrangement. Irish security sources have made it clear that although they often worked closely with MI5, they had no relationship with GCHQ.

And yet there were clear indications that a bomb run was under way. At 12.50pm, the mobile in the scout car received a 23-second call from a phone box 100 yards inside the Northern Irish border. The voice should have been familiar: it had been recorded three weeks earlier during a mortar attack in Newry. It was assessed then as belonging to a man identified as the “Officer Commanding” one of the dissident units that had been carrying out the bombings.

As both mobiles crossed the border, they went over to the British-owned network Vodafone, on which GCHQ can monitor and track calls. So instead of just one mobile inching north on the screen of the GCHQ monitors, there would now have been two.

He says GCHQ’s answer was: “‘We missed it.'”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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