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.'”

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    I have little sympathy with attempts to deflect blame from the bombers by concentrating on the errors of the investigating police – but this story looks extremely worrying.

    Politically there will be hay to made over the continuing role and accountability of GCHQ.

  • Echelon may well have been listening and informers may have been in need of protection – on both sides of the border. Also, the intelligence authorities may have been inhibited by the need to protect the ‘peace process’ at all costs.

    PS O’Loan’s comments about access to Omagh look a bit dodgy.

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    Still, it should hasten the suicide of disgraced chief constable Ronnie Fannigan, if nothing else.

  • barnshee

    “Still, it should hasten the suicide of disgraced chief constable Ronnie Fannigan, if nothing else”

    Why ? the failing was not his not the fault of the then RUC

    Add it to the tendentious intellectually shallow item from O`Loan, wee Ronnies threat of a judicial review and it perhaps explains his appearance in the Constabulary inspectorate.

    The whole items stinks- its a pity we will have to wait for 50 year rule to elapse, to confirm the depths of dirty dealing by B Liar and co

  • Brian Walker

    barnshee the rule is usually 30 years not 50 but even then there’s no guarantee that “matters so national security” will be released. The case for an inquiry by a mandarin must be strengthening – not a public inquiry, I doubt if there’s the remotest chance of that. But a published inquiry could at least reveal questions and answers not adequately dealt with. Ware’s report feels like an semi-authorised rejoinder to some of the criticism of the police and may lead to more.

  • susan

    Thank you Brian. John Ware’s thoroughness on Omagh over the years transcends professionalism; it seems to be a calling.

    In the Sunday Telegraph piece Brian links, Ware himself makes the point about access roads in and out of Omagh.

    “If GCHQ’s monitoring was “live”, as Special Branch had requested, then by this late stage, it should have been clear that there was a serious possibility that they were listening to a bomb run. Had they alerted Special Branch, it could have made all the difference: there are few routes in and out of Omagh, and these could have been blocked by checkpoints.

    But nothing was passed on to the police. By 2.10pm, it was too late: according to the phone logs, the bomb car was inside the town.

    Around 2.20pm, GCHQ once again recorded the words that had been the prelude to the bomb in Banbridge: “The bricks are in the wall.” The bomb was armed and the clock ticking.

    Anyone listening should by now have been in no doubt about what was going to happen. Forty-four minutes later, the bomb exploded.”

  • ulsterfan

    People will not rest until the truth is known even if it takes 30/50 years.
    A full public inquiry is needed but designed in such a way to get at the truth and not as a means of lining the pockets of lawyers.
    A bit of thinking “outside the box” is needed and for the time being I will put some faith in the investigative Press to give us more information.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    “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.”

    “As both mobiles crossed the border, they went over to the British-owned network Vodafone, [u]on which GCHQ can monitor and track calls[/u].”

    What has the Irish authorities got to say about the part they played in listening to the phone records before they crossed the border?

  • Steve

    The Omagh bombers and their collaborators should thank their lucky stars they are not living under Israeli rule cos it would be a simple case of Apache Hellicopter,Hellfire Missile, big bang, farmhouse no more and a call to the local undertaker.

  • Andrew McCann

    Some other people in Omagh would then have had been collateral damages to the armed forces.

  • runciter

    The Omagh bombers and their collaborators

    Which would include, by the sounds of things, MI5 and GCHQ.

  • It’s certainly good work by John Ware, but it is only of an academic interest as the British government will never allow any truly independent inquiry into its lousy counterterrorist efforts in Ireland and Northern Ireland nor punish anyone seriously involved.

    It was just too deeply aiding and abetting what it was arranging with double agents like ‘Steak knife’ to have a serious serious interest in stopping the murder and mayhem – hoping that it would change the minds of nationalists and loyalists about what their paramilitaries were doing.

    Just look at what has transpired on the Cory front, and how scumbags like Ronnie Flanagan have fared.

    It’s just how police states conduct themselves in our age of insecurity.

  • I just wonder if MI5’s recruitment of an agent of the Garda – what Annie Machon has talked about in Spies, Lies & Whistleblowers, p. 110ff. – has anything to do with the failure of GCHQ to act on the taps, and its incredible efforts to cover it all up.

    Machon talks about David Shayler learning in 1994 that the Security Service had recruited a Garda agent – what broke the convention about not running them in friendly services – and then Shayler was told to make sure that if he acted on the information regarding his duties in stopping IRA terrorism in the Northeast, he make sure that it didn’t get back to the Garda.

    “In other words,” Machon concluded, “T8 (the MI5 officer running the Garda agent) encouraged an Irish public servant to betray his colleagues, his employers and the Irish people to a foregin power.” (p. 111)

    Could it be that this Garda agent or a successor was feedding GCHQ information about what the suspected terrorists in the Irish Republic were doing in August 1998, but GCHQ was afraid to act on it for fear of causing a diplomatic row between the UK and the Republic.

    I am particularly interested in this possibility since Irish security sources volunteered that while they had a working relationship with MI5, they had no contact with GCHQ.

    And while I have blasted Machon’s book other matters – stating that clearly suits certain MI6 aims – it has been quite embarrassing to the Security Service. And this might just add to it.

  • Apply now everyone?
  • barnshee

    Its all part of a dirty deal to help SF sanitise its past and keep its ex/members free of accountability.

    The big fly in the ointment is the Omagh civil case

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    “The Omagh bombers and their collaborators…..

    Which would include, by the sounds of things, MI5 and GCHQ.”

    The covert actions of the old British security forces have been rather sinister at times in NI. There are numerous accounts of cover ups. Unionists would disagree of course and would never question such actions. Prior to the Omagh bombing, there had been several bomb threats each Saturday, but it looks as if the British security forces had the culprits tracked.
    There is the accusation by Unionists that they were all in league together, IRA/Sinn Fein/MI5/MI6… If this is so then why did they allow this to happen and indeed allow all IRA bombings happen?
    Was the detrimental effects of the mother of all bombs to end it all there at Omagh, such was the public outrage at the carnage and murder?

  • barnshee

    “There is the accusation by Unionists that they were all in league together, IRA/Sinn Fein/MI5/MI6… If this is so then why did they allow this to happen and indeed allow all IRA bombings happen”

    Its a choice– cock up or conspiracy.
    Its just part of the wider conspiracy . T Bliar was setting up SF for inclusion and cannot afford/does not want to “lift” or otherwise bring to account them or their associates. This will only impede the process.

    This inhibits the MI5/GCSG activity who thus gamble on an attack being compromised or other halted. In this (and other cases -Restorick?) they lost the gamble.
    They now want to avoid accountability- no surprise there.

  • runciter

    This inhibits the MI5/GCSG activity who thus gamble on an attack being compromised or other halted.

    Assuming, of course, that they see no advantage in allowing the attack to succeed.

  • barnshee

    “Assuming, of course, that they see no advantage in allowing the attack to succeed. ”

    There is no real advantage to any grouping in “allowing the attack to succeed”. A “sucessful” attack brings odium on the perpetrators encourages the “told you so” Dupers etc.
    Inhibits the the overall strategy. What they want is an attack thwarted or mitigated via informers etc. As before its a gamble—lost this one.
    Add in general incompentence -et voila

  • runciter

    A “sucessful” attack brings odium on the perpetrators

    A clear advantage to MI5.

  • Reader

    runciter: A clear advantage to MI5.
    The successful bombing 1) undermined the dissident republicans; 2) propped up the recalcitrant unionists; 3) Buggered up the security forces’ growing reputation for omniscience.
    That’s 2-1 against the peace process, so: not a win for MI5 unless you think MI5 were the ‘baddie’ brand of securocrats.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    MI5 and GCHQ???

    were they able to track phonecalls in the Republic?

  • Tir Eoghain Gael

    UMH
    Why would you think they were not able to track calls down south?
    The SAS have crossed the border when it suited them in the past. You should have watched the programme first before seeking to put blame on the Irish authorities.

  • Skintown Lad

    Some of the conspiracy theories on this thread are so far-fetched they come full circle and argue against themselves.

    It seems to me that all we can take from the programme was that GCHQ appear to have hoped, naively, that the police would be able to find the evidence they required without GCHQ having to reveal (a) that they stuffed up; and (b) that perhaps they were not doing things exactly by the book, which could have diplomatic fall-out and compromise future counter-terrorism efforts. That is not my opinion but merely all I think one could take from the programme. The programme presents the possibility that as it turned out, the police struggled in their evidence-gathering and the case had crucial holes, which in hindsight it may not have done if the GCHQ had been more open.

    As to the seperate question of why GCHQ did not take steps to intervene, it seemed from the account of their listening service that it was entirely plausable that they “missed it”. There are human beings in offices that make mistakes and omissions in their professional lives every day. GCHQ had to decifer coded conversations and track car movements. It did not seem beyond comprehension to me that what seemed obvious after the event could have gone unnoticed on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August.

  • Surprise, surprise, the government is already throwing cold water on any public inquiry into the Omagh massacre – Security Minister Paul Goggins stating that it would not bring justice to those dead and injured by seeing to the conviction and punishment of those who caused it, only add to their anguish.

    Of course, this is simply obfuscation by authorities as everyone should know that public inquiries should never lead to criminal convictions, only to the discover of facts, and who or what was responsible for them.

    In this case, the government is particularly interested in protecting the role and identity of the leading MI5 agent who apparently recruited the agent in the Garda who was helping GCHQ track the bombers – the head of Northern Irish counterterrorism then who, it seems, has gone on to become its Director, Jonathan ‘Bob’ Evans aka William Perkins.

    For more of the Britsh bs about there not being any public inquiry, see this link:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/sep/17/northernireland.northernireland