Soapbox: Scappaticci, secrecy of the state and public trust

In his response to my criticism of Panorama’s programme on Freddie Scappaticci, or Steak Knife as he is probably better known, which was in essence that the programme had  failed to examine the possible role played in the running of Steak Knife by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in Whitehall – and therefore ignored possible high-level political awareness in Britain that the agent had been allowed to murder or connive at murder –  Panorama presenter, John Ware rests his case basically on two arguments.

(For the benefit of readers, the Joint Intelligence Committee brings together Britain’s main intelligence agencies, MI6, MI5 and GCHQ along with their military counterparts to agree and co-ordinate intelligence policy. The JIC is part of the British Cabinet bureaucracy and reports to the prime minister of the day.)

One argument advanced by John is that the Whitehall bureaucracy did not inform their political masters of such sordid detail because it suited the politicians who did not want to know. As he put it:

Ministers seem to have preferred the intelligence services in Belfast rather than ministers and mandarins in Whitehall carry the can for any such illegality.

The sentence above seems to suggest that Ministers knew there was illegality happening, otherwise, why would they seek out ignorance?

The other is that the workings of intelligence in Northern Ireland was not really the business of the JIC. As he wrote, in respect of the question of Mrs Thatcher’s knowledge of Steak Knife:

‘So dealing with the evidence to date of what Mrs Thatcher did or did not know, as I understand it the JIC focused primarily on the terrorist threat in Britain (as opposed to Northern Ireland) and in continental Europe.’

I wrote two pieces on my blog ‘thebrokenelbow.com’ about the Panorama programme. The first, titled ‘Scappaticci: Did Panorama Pull Its Punches’, asked, in the context of wondering why Panorama had left out this aspect of the scandal, what the JIC knew about Steak Knife, whether there was knowledge at prime ministerial level about the agent’s activities and if so, how many prime ministers could have known given that, according to an account of Steak Knife’s recruitment written by his handler’s military boss, he had been an agent from about 1976 or 1977. Three prime ministers were in office during those years, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The second, more considered offering, was posted a few days later, and was titled ‘Scappaticci: Some More Thoughts On The British Joint Intelligence Committee And Steak Knife’. I suspect John read the first post but missed the second one. That was a pity.

In the ‘More Thoughts’ post, I set out to ask whether the JIC had involved itself with intelligence work on the ground in Northern Ireland. And if the evidence suggested it had then it would follow that JIC knowledge of an agent as valuable as Steak Knife, who after all had the potential of opening doors throughout the IRA for the British, would have to be presumed.

I was fortunate in this regard to have known about an academic article written in 2007 by the Trinity College Dublin historian Eunan O’Halpin which examined this very question. Professor O’Halpin based his article, ‘The British Joint Intelligence Committee and Ireland, 1965-72’, on JIC documents available at the British government archive at Kew.

Professor O’Halpin makes it very clear that the vast bulk of JIC documentation dealing with its Irish work is still embargoed and not available even to civil servants who drafted the paperwork much less to academics or journalists.

Nonetheless what material he was able to examine suggests that the JIC involved itself very closely with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and at a surprisingly early point. After the October 5th civil rights march in Derry, for instance, the JIC established an ‘Ulster Working Group’ to monitor events and co-opted the Head of the RUC Special Branch to assist their deliberations.

This was long before Burntollet or the ugly summer of 1969. About that simmering summer, Professor O’Halpin further wrote:

By the summer of 1969, Northern Ireland featured fairly regularly in JIC business. In May the chief of the army general staff complained that the RUC ‘is jealous of its independence .. the Minister for Home Affairs .. is being told only what the Inspector General deems it fit that he should hear’, a judgement duly reported to prime minister Harold Wilson.

It was plain that London needed to know more about what was happening and what was likely to happen. In July the Home Office circulated a report to the JIC ‘on the progress made in improving intelligence assessments and providing intelligence coverage of the Ulster situation’.

The JIC also reflected on emerging difficulties and friction between the RUC, anxious lest any other government agency collect and forward intelligence to London independently of it, and MI5 and the army. For the next six months this became a rolling theme in JIC business…..

Note the phrase, ‘….the RUC, anxious lest any other government agency collect and forward intelligence to London independently of it….’ The words ‘to London’ jump out. To whom specifically in London if it was not to the JIC whose job it was to filter and assess intelligence on behalf of the prime minister of the day?

So here you have the JIC down in the weeds of the intelligence game in Northern Ireland, and reporting in detail to the prime minister Harold Wilson. And that was before the war with the IRA began, before even the IRA had split in two.

Six months later, O’Halpin writes that the JIC had directly involved itself in that bugbear of the early intelligence war, rivalry between the RUC and British Army, and this just weeks after an IRA split had given birth to the Provisionals:

In January 1970 the director general of MI5 (Dick White) visited Northern Ireland to discuss future security and intelligence arrangements, a clear signal that London was now taking the Northern Ireland problem seriously.

The available JIC records do not say much about the detailed outcome of those discussions, although intelligence arrangements remained problematic due to the reluctance of the RUC and the British army to share material systematically and comprehensively: two years later the departing JIC secretary reported that ‘since all action has to be achieved by persuasion rather than by direct intervention, the rate of progress remains regrettably slow in some fields’.

The saga of inadequate police-army cooperation in Northern Ireland was to continue for at least another decade.

By the mid-1970’s, O’Halpin implies, intelligence policy was being formulated not in Northern Ireland but in London:

It is clear that by the mid-1970s the techniques and parameters of intelligence collection and counter-terrorist operations were not determined at the local, tactical level, but by reference to policy laid down from on high.

He doesn’t say that ‘on high’ means the JIC, but it is difficult to know who else he could have had in mind. Nowhere in O’Halpin’s study of the JIC is there even the slightest suggestion that the committee was primarily concerned with terrorism in Britain and continental Europe but not Northern Ireland. Quite to the contrary. The JIC, it is clear, did involve itself in the detail of the intelligence war in Northern Ireland.

O’Halpin concludes thus about the JIC’s role in and responsibility for intelligence operations in Northern Ireland:

Exploration of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s role in advising (the) British government on the unfolding Northern Ireland crisis after 1968 raises one further issue. If the JIC system was so sophisticated a means of integrating intelligence analysis and setting intelligence priorities by the late 1960s, it follows that it carried ultimate responsibility for the operational as well as the analytical practices of intelligence agencies and departments, in the muddy fields of South Armagh as much as in the committee rooms of Whitehall. Consequently it behoves researchers to continue to probe the question of what the JIC knew, and what it may have chosen not to know, about problems such as security force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, as well as all other aspects of intelligence and counter-terrorism policy and operations relating to the Northern Irish troubles.’

Note that phrase: ‘….(the JIC) carried ultimate responsibility for the operational as well as the analytical practices of intelligence agencies and departments, in the muddy fields of South Armagh as much as in the committee rooms of Whitehall.’

There may be many disagreements about who knew what about Steak Knife’s activities but little dispute about his value as an agent to the British. Given Professor O’Halpin’s observations about the JIC’s involvement in the intelligence game in Northern Ireland and what we can guess about his invaluable role in the effort to bring the IRA to the peace table, it would be quite extraordinary for the JIC not to know about Freddie Scappaticci.

Given Professor O’Halpin’s observations about the JIC’s involvement in the intelligence game in Northern Ireland and what we can guess about his invaluable role in the effort to bring the IRA to the peace table, it would be quite extraordinary for the JIC not to know about Freddie Scappaticci.

The JIC developed intelligence policy after all and how best to use Scappaticci surely qualified as a policy matter. After all through the way he was handled lay a possible exit route from the Troubles, or a path to an exit route. His preservation and progress had to be a matter of the utmost concern at the highest intelligence levels.

Scappaticci was active during all the formative years of the peace process and Sinn Fein’s sally into electoral politics, from the early 1980’s until the eve of the first IRA ceasefire. He would have been in an excellent position to give an informed view of where all this might go, a view of great interest to policymakers in Downing Street.

The idea that an intelligence committee which was sufficiently percipient to recognise the October 5th march in Derry as an alarm bell ringing loudly would not want to know what Scappaticci knew or thought about Sinn Fein and the IRA’s political direction in the 1980‘s does not strike me as realistic.

Whether the JIC or anyone else green-lighted Scappaticci’s murderous ways is a different matter. Here is what I actually wrote in the ‘More Thoughts’ post about whether or not a body like the JIC would have given approval to Scappaticci’s role in murder:

But would the mandarins actually have given Scappaticci permission to kill without any possibility of sanction? Would they even have the legal powers to make such a promise? Would that not make them accessories before and after the fact?

Common sense, a rudimentary knowledge of the criminal law and the natural caution of the bureaucrat combine to suggest that the JIC would not have given a clear answer to any of those questions. So how to deal with this problem?

There are times when taking a decision not to make a decision is actually a decision, and this may have been one of those occasions.

By not taking a position on the question of Scappaticci’s culpability for murder – but allowing it to happen nonetheless – the JIC would enjoy the luxury of benefiting from his intelligence product while not officially sharing in the burden of what he was doing to obtain it. There would be nothing on paper to incriminate the functionaries?

A classic British solution perhaps? But wasn’t that just another way of sanctioning Scappaticci’s death-dealing ways?

In the same post, I examined the possible role of the three prime ministers who were in office during the years when Freddie Scappaticci was allegedly active as an agent and suggested that only Margaret Thatcher was really a candidate for knowledge about his activities.

She was, in the words of a cabinet colleague, ‘besotted with intelligence’ and was the first prime minister to ever attend a meeting of the JIC, which she did at the end of February, 1980.

She pored over the committee’s weekly reports to her, often making annotated comments. It is not hard to imagine her interest in knowing and asking in detail how the intelligence war against the IRA was going.

A fascinating account of Thatcher’s dealings with the JIC is available courtesy of the British government’s own blog. I reproduced the relevant article on the ‘More Thoughts’ post on my own blog.

One section of the blog post is of interest. Discussing various points that Mrs Thatcher had raised about the JIC’s modus operandi the post read:

Items of current intelligence in the Weekly Survey of Intelligence or ‘Red Book’, as it is known, had, until that point, provided details of the sources of intelligence. Following Thatcher’s intervention these were removed.’

So until Thatcher began to take a personal interest in the workings of the JIC, British prime ministers were routinely informed on a weekly basis not just about the latest up-to-date intelligence on matters of interest but also where and from whom the intelligence had emanated.

Did the details listed in the ‘Red Book’ include the codenames and a description of the sources, not least so as to underline their reliability/importance?

Did Thatcher seek the removal of such details because they might be seen by others in Downing Street, that to publish them in the ‘Red Book’ was a security risk, as it seems?

Or was it done to remove evidence of knowledge on the part of the prime minister and any ministerial colleagues who shared the ‘Red Book’ contents?

We don’t know but at the least this places a large question mark against John’s assertion that British prime ministers were kept out of the messy business of knowing who Britain’s agents or sources of intelligence in Northern Ireland were.

By this point, after all, the IRA’s campaign had lasted for over a decade, Steak Knife had been a British agent possibly for several years, and if Professor O’Halpin’s study is to be believed the JIC had been intimately involved in the formulation of intelligence policy in Northern Ireland during that period.

John also cites the De Silva report on the Pat Finucane killing as an authority for this and the general claim that British politicians were kept in the dark about the detail of intelligence operations, such as the identity of double agents.

John co-operated closely with de Silva, making his notes on his dealings with UDA leaders like Tommy Lyttle available to his investigation. Others were more sceptical about the De Silva inquiry and kept a distance from it. It is worth revisiting the background to De Silva’s appointment.

After years of campaigning and during a critical phase of the peace process negotiations the family of Pat Finucane worked to secure a pledge from British prime minister Tony Blair that there would be a full public tribunal of inquiry into the solicitor’s murder by the UDA and any role played by British intelligence.

Blair’s response was to effectively kill off for good the concept of public interest-led inquiries. He sponsored legislation that gave ministers the ultimate power to decide the terms of reference for inquiries, powers that served to restrict tribunals of inquiry in significant ways.

Pat Finucane’s son, Michael wrote this about Blair’s Bill:

‘The inquiries bill grants the power to a government minister to limit an inquiry through restrictive terms of reference, to curb investigations by limiting available funding, to censor the final report and even control and limit the very evidence the inquiry can consider. How can an inquiry be expected to get to the truth under the yoke of this new law?’

When Tony Blair was succeeded by David Cameron, the Finucane’s were in for a greater disappointment. There wouldn’t even be a limited public inquiry into the lawyer’s killing. Instead the QC, Sir Desmond de Silva was asked by Cameron to review all the existing documents on the case and prepare a report outlining what had happened.

In his meeting with the Finucane family in Downing Street, Cameron’s body language suggested that the mandarins of Whitehall had put their foot down. There would be no public investigation or examination of the spy agencies’ part in the death of Pat Finucane, no cross-examination of the Force Research Unit (FRU) handlers of Brian Nelson – the UDA equivalent of Freddie Scappaticci – nor those in MI5 or the RUC Special Branch who had shared in the intelligence product so created.

De Silva’s report was interesting and contained a lot of new detail about the workings of intelligence in Northern Ireland was made public.

But de Silva was entirely dependent on the good graces of the same intelligence agencies involved in handling Brian Nelson for the documentation that he was able to read and none of the accounts given were tested by public cross-examination.

De Silva ended up concluding what it seems nearly every British inquiry into scandal concludes, from Bloody Sunday to Profumo, which is that the culprits were at the low level of things – like the squaddies in Derry – and the higher up’s had generally played with a straight bat. And of course, there were the cock up’s.

De Silva, who was made a Privy Counsellor when he agreed to report on the Finucane killing, was supposed to confine his activity to acquiring, reading and assessing the intelligence documentation surrounding Brian Nelson and Pat Finucane.

His investigation was supposed to not even resemble a public inquiry. But he made one significant exception to the implied bar on personal interaction. The commander of the Force Research Unit which recruited and handled Brian Nelson was allowed to meet in person with de Silva, several times, to give his account of the affair directly to him.

In sharp contrast, de Silva refused to even consider the evidence compiled by Ian Hurst, the FRU handler who had blown the whistle on Freddie Scappaticci back in the early 1990’s. Instead, he devoted an entire section to listing the reasons why Hurst was an unreliable and untrustworthy source.

When his report was made public, the reaction of Pat Finucane’s widow was scathing:

It’s a report into which we have had no input,” she said. “The British government has engineered a suppression of the truth behind the murder of my husband. At every turn it is clear that this report has done exactly what was required – to give the benefit of the doubt to the state, its cabinet and ministers, to the army, to the intelligence services and to itself.

At every turn, dead witnesses have been blamed and defunct agencies found wanting. Serving personnel and active state departments appear to have been excused.

The dirt has been swept under the carpet without any serious attempt to lift the lid on what really happened to Pat and so many others.

This report is a sham, this report is a whitewash, this report is a confidence trick dressed up as independent scrutiny and given invisible clothes of reliability. But most of all, most hurtful and insulting of all, this report is not the truth.

Ed Moloney is a former Northern Editor of the Irish Times and Sunday Tribune, author of ‘ Secret History of the IRA’, ‘Paisley – From Demagogie to Democrat?’ and ‘Voices From The Grave’, which was based on interviews compiled for the Boston College Oral History Archive and he also wrote and co-produced a film documentary of the same name. He now lives and writes from New York.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.