After Panorama’s rebuttal, the book on Omagh should remain open

The BBC Panorama programme has issued a 23 page detailed public rebuttal of the findings of the Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Peter Gibson, who criticised last September’s edition on the Omagh bomb case. The programme crucially asked why intercept intelligence had not been passed on promptly to the CID in Omagh- with the result of rendering convictions highly unlikely. This is the most thorough public challenge of an official finding I can recall the BBC ever making. Basically in terms, Panorama accuses Gibson of misrepresenting the programme, answering questions it didn’t ask, and failing to ask obvious follow up questions himself in his own inquiry, which had the unique advantage of privileged access to intelligence sources. The team also has questions for Sir Hugh Orde.

In disclosing that a new “dissemination policy now exists..” is Sir Hugh
here acknowledging that GCHQ’s doctrine of total secrecy in 1998
preventing even detectives from knowing that the source of a piece of
intelligence was intercept was, when applied to the Omagh CID
investigation, an obstruction to justice? In which case, why cannot Sir
Hugh say so in clear terms?
In a summary by its editor Sandy Smith, Panorama and its reporter John Ware question Sir Peter’s finding that in the days surrounding the bombing and on the day itself, “to the extent that any relevant intelligence was derived from interception”, it was shared with the RUC and RUC Special Branch “promptly and fully” and in accordance with agreed procedures. “Any intelligence derived from interception as might have existed could not have prevented the bombing,” he reported.

Sir Peter also criticised Panorama for making “allegations” that the bombing could have been prevented. In fact the programme made no such allegation. Rather, we asked whether the bombing could have been prevented – a question we now consider even more justified by Sir Peter’s failure to challenge our central claim: that GCHQ was listening to the mobiles of some of the bombers while the bomb was being driven to Omagh.

Admittedly, if you watched the programme normally rather than analysing it in detail, this might seem a fine distinction. Panorama seem keen to point out that there was a case to answer here, and didn’t come to final conclusions. All the same, Panorama’s account of bursts of words from mobiles in the countdown to the explosion gave the programme momentum and would have had viewers gripped and emotional and – perhaps – public officials feeling defensive.

Extracts from Panorama’s full 23 pdf page rebuttal

Both Sir Peter and the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward
have misrepresented what Panorama said about the degree to which the
bombing could have been prevented. No assertion that the bombing was
preventable was made by the programme or anybody taking part in it.

Sir Peter makes no criticism of GCHQ for the failure of the CID to be
told that GCHQ had evidence in the form of telephone numbers which
would have offered a paper trail to detectives desperate for early arrests.
Yet he implies that it was GCHQ’s own non disclosure rules that denied
this vital assistance to the detectives.
Sir Peter’s heavily circumscribed Review raises virtually as many new
questions as it claims to answer.

Non disclosure of Intercept intelligence

Key Panorama claims admitted or not challenged by Sir Peter Gibson or the

Panorama disclosed the new and important fact that GCHQ had been
monitoring the mobiles of some of the bombers on their way to Omagh.

The Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward appears to have
acknowledged in terms that mobiles were being intercepted on the day of the bombing.

Panorama said that the detectives hunting the bombers were never told that some of the
bombers had been using mobile phones. Nor were they ever told there were telephone numbers
– something the detectives came to suspect but were left to work out for themselves.

Sir Peter does disclose that it would have been possible for Special
Branch to apply to GCHQ for further disclosure and wider dissemination of
any intelligence arising from intercepts. No such request was made, he says.
Sir Peter admits that because of the terms of his reference, he has not
investigated the reasons why Special Branch (South) acted in the “cautious
way that it did, nor have I investigated the soundness of those reasons.
that very issue lay at the heart of Panorama which caused the Prime
Minister to order the Review in the first place.

We believe that both intercept and telephone billing evidence was available to the intelligence services within hours of the bombing to show that the Murphy mobile had been used on the bomb run.

Had (Terence) Morgan’s number – or even just his name – been given to the CID during the“golden hours”, it seems likely that this lead alone would have led swiftly to the identification and arrest of Seamus Daly, Colum Murphy and others.

There is a second reason as to why Sir Peter’s assertion that there was
“no evidence whatever before” him does not at all mean there is no
evidence whatever for the claim reported by John Ware as it was
reported to him. The bomb car was stolen in the early hours of the 13 August
at Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan. John has been told by reliable sources
that one of individuals involved in the theft was an informant for the
Garda Sciochana

What exactly is Sir Hugh Orde saying?

Only one comment has been made publicly on the suitability of the
intelligence sharing regime in place during the Omagh investigation and it has
come from the PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde. In a letter to the
Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Hugh writes: “A dissemination policy now
(my emphasis) exists which guides how intelligence is shared for the
purpose of criminal investigation, early investigative expertise is sought in
cases of serious crime, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland has properly
resourced these areas to operate to the highest national standards in respect
of handling intelligence and the investigation of serious and organised crime.

Like Sir Peter, the Northern Ireland Secretary has also suggested the BBC has
raised the families’ expectations as to whether the bombing could have been
stopped. We categorically reject this.

Before transmission John Ware made a special trip to Omagh having invited
all the relatives to a hotel where a room was booked in order to explain to
them in detail the limits of our knowledge: what we believed to be fact, and
what we still regarded as legitimate questions to be answered. The families
were left in absolutely no doubt that we were NOT claiming the bombing
could have been prevented.
The record of John’s briefing to the families
speaks for itself.

Although John Ware made all this clear during his interview with Sir
Peter, and subsequently by e mail to the Northern Ireland Secretary, the
government were nonetheless content for Sir Peter to retain in his report
the unwarranted suggestion that Panorama had been the cause of
“expectations “ having been “raised amongst the families of the victims of
the bombing. We ask the government to withdraw this suggestion from
the official record.

The intelligence gap remains. Tantalisingly, evidence may still exist in GCHQ records that could provide the basis for reopening the inquiry, with full cooperation from the Gardai. Pity the Omagh families in their struggle, who have to live with that suspicion.

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