When a terrorist group is active in the UK — as Islamist extremists and dissident republicans are at the moment — there is no more essential figure in the prevention of carnage than an agent working for the security services. Reliable intelligence is what defuses bombs, intercepts arms caches, and apprehends suspects. Its acquisition can involve unimaginable personal risks, in circumstances of nerve-shredding tension. We should all be grateful, but most of us never get to know what to say thank you for, or to whom. An agent’s success manifests itself in nothing happening. Its continued value depends on secrecy.
Is MI5 grateful on our behalf? Well, it seems that gratitude for intelligence sources may come with an expiry date. Earlier this month, for example, the BBC interviewed a former MI5 surveillance officer, codenamed Robert Acott, who claimed to have spied for 18 years, mostly on Irish and Islamist targets.
After 9/11, he said, MI5 found itself worryingly short of Muslim agents, and officers such as Acott struggled to compensate. After the Tube bomb attacks in July 2005 the stakes grew higher. Acott had his first panic attack as he followed a suspected suicide bomber on to the Tube. He began to have nightmares, further panic attacks, and problems with alcohol. Acott said that when his health problems became obvious, MI5 ‘wanted rid of me’: he was dismissed for ‘gross misconduct’ after leaving an MI5 manual, which he claims was of negligible security value, in his shed.
Security sources have said that this is only half the story, and perhaps it is. Given the nature of MI5, we are unlikely ever to hear the other half. But it is not the only accusation of abandonment currently being levelled at the organisation. Martin McGartland, a former agent who infiltrated the IRA on behalf of RUC Special Branch, is suing MI5 for breach of contract and negligence in his care.
McGartland’s story is one of the most compelling to emerge from the Troubles. He was recruited to spy for Special Branch in West Belfast as a teenager, drifting towards petty crime and resentful of local IRA enforcers. He later joined the IRA at the request of the police, and became part of an IRA unit planning gun and bomb attacks. Between 1989 and 1991, as ‘Agent Carol’, he was estimated to have saved more than 50 lives, but eventually — after a series of jobs in which he was involved went wrong — his IRA colleagues grew suspicious. He was abducted, taken to a tower block in West Belfast and tied up. As McGartland knew, the IRA routinely tortured suspected informers, taped a ‘confession’, then shot them dead. When he asked to use the bathroom and saw the tub filled with cold water for his imminent ordeal, he flung himself head first through a third-floor window. He sustained multiple injuries but survived.
McGartland was given a new identity in England, which was blown in 1997 when Northumbria Police brought a speeding charge against him and his real name was revealed in court. He agitated for police protection, which was not deemed necessary until a two-man IRA team turned up at his home in Tyne and Wear in 1999 and shot him six times. As McGartland battled for his life in hospital, Northumbria Police said it was ‘keeping an open mind’ on IRA involvement. A number of national newspapers simultaneously got the erroneous idea that McGartland’s shooting was a result of involvement with drugs gangs. When he eventually recovered, he successfully sued them all for libel.
McGartland now has yet another identity, but he has been left with psychiatric problems and physical disabilities. One aspect of his court case — along with a request for help with disability payments — is that MI5 should compensate him for the years in which it refused to pay for psychiatric care and medication. The case, however, has been prolonged partly because the Home Office will ‘neither confirm nor deny’ that he was ever an agent, and has insisted on secret proceedings, with McGartland and his legal team barred from hearing the authorities’ evidence.
There are strong general grounds for the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy, but it seems ridiculous in McGartland’s case. As ‘Agent Carol’, he featured prominently in the memoirs of Ian Phoenix, the former senior Special Branch officer killed in the 1994 Chinook helicopter disaster. He has been subjected to two IRA assassination attempts and given two new identities by the security services. While McGartland has energetically publicised his story — in particular with his book Fifty Dead Men Walking — there is a wealth of evidence supporting his claims.
Another former agent, Raymond Gilmour — who infiltrated both the INLA and the IRA and was the key witness in the collapsed 1980s ‘supergrass’ trials — has also claimed that he was ‘cast adrift’ by the security services. Gilmour now has serious psychiatric problems, and his NHS consultant felt compelled to write to MI5 in 2013 asking that it bypass his risk of exposure by taking over his care.
In their time, agents such as McGartland and Gilmour — working-class Catholic youths who mixed unobtrusively in republican circles — were prized sources. They helped to prevent many terrorist attacks, but after their exposure they lost all the things that hold a person together: identity, community, family. Then, after the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the political music stopped and the key players of The Troubles were all sitting in different chairs, some in government. There was a hitherto unthinkable rapprochement between the British establishment and former leaders of the IRA. In diehard republican circles, the difficulties of McGartland and Gilmour are received with tangible glee.
Since the 1990s, the lid has partially slid off ‘the dirty war’ in Northern Ireland, and what lies beneath isn’t pretty. One striking feature of it is what I would call the ‘agent paradox’. If an agent within a terrorist unit is linked to too many failed operations, other members will gradually begin to suspect them. To prove their credentials — and prolong their intelligence work — they will eventually have to be involved in an operation that goes as planned, at which point they become an active participant in terrorism. In a perpetually fluid situation, their handlers will have to decide at what point, if any, the cut-off lies. Should they, for example, overlook an agent’s participation in an assassination in order to acquire information that might stop a city-centre bombing?
Perhaps the most grotesque illustration of the agent paradox was Freddie Scappaticci, or ‘Stakeknife’, an IRA informant run by the British Army who was a leading member of the IRA’s feared ‘nutting squad’. His job was to vet new members and weed out informers, a brutal role that placed him above suspicion. Unfortunately, it also meant that ‘Stakeknife’ — regarded by army intelligence as their ‘golden egg’ — was allegedly closely involved in the murder of lower-level informants.
The murky business of ‘Covert Human Intelligence’ can be made more accountable and less dirty, but I don’t think it can be rendered entirely clean. As the domestic threat from Islamist terrorism rises, high-level insider information — with all its dilemmas — will be more necessary than ever. A former RUC Special Branch officer also told me of his concern that low-level networks of knowledge are not well established in UK Muslim communities, in contrast to Northern Ireland in the 1990s: ‘In Northern Ireland we “avoided the void” because we had local knowledge. That’s how you build up to recruiting good agents. At the same time, security services will have to demonstrate that we can take care of the people who help us.’
MI5 clearly does not owe a lifelong duty of care to every occasional informant. Yet it should surely pay its long-term debts to formerly valuable and courageous agents, particularly those who first joined terrorist groups at the behest of the security services.
David Cameron said recently that British resolve ‘saw off the IRA’s assault on our way of life’.The truth is that it was something slightly different from resolve. It was intelligence.