Monday 22 December 2014

The name is O'Boyle . . . Seamus O'Boyle

Published 24/12/2005 | 00:11

The Irish Secret Service is the poor relation of intelligence agencies internationally. Damian Corless reports on theworkings of an enigmatic state operation

The Irish Secret Service is not a spent force. According to figures released this week, it's a half-spent force. Between 1996 and 2004, it used just ?3.5m of ?7.8m allocated to it in the Dail's annual Secret Service Vote, effectively handing back the rest.

Deputies pass the budget unseen, on the say-so of the Minister for Finance and one other minister. The Comptroller & Auditor General, who normally puts the public accounts under the microscope, is obliged to sign his approval while looking away.

The average annual budget of ?391,333 is the sort of sum that James Bond would toss on a roulette table to tip the croupier. So Ireland's secret agents clearly lack the funding for submarine cars, jet-packs and shark-wrestling missions in the Seychelles.

It's been speculated that the budget goes substantially into the pockets of paid informers. But the experience of American David Rupert, a sometimes FBI and MI5 agent, suggests that this State pays way below the international minimum wage for stool pigeons.

During a court case two years ago, Rupert put his career earnings from spying at well over a million dollars and said that he was currently receiving $12,000 a month plus expenses from his handlers. He recalled agreeing to spy for Irish intelligence on the expectation of a briefcase full of swag.

However, he was "taken aback" when his Garda contact turned up for a clandestine meeting empty-handed. When he broached the matter of payment he was told "the Garda doesn't do that" and offered "a ten pound note" to cover his mileage.

So who gets to spend the Secret Service budget, and on what? One obstacle to answering those questions is that Ireland is different to many other Western democracies in that it doesn't have an established intelligence agency (such as the CIA, MI5 and Mossad) with an identifiable director. As Justice Minister Michael McDowell put it when stonewalling a Dail question in 2002: "There is no Secret Service structure in this jurisdiction."

In the absence of any office, staff or number to call, different observers have come to different conclusions about the make-up of the Secret Service. Last year, calling for the foundation of a cross-party Dail committee to impose more accountability on the Secret Service, Fine Gael's Gay Mitchell outlined his belief that its members are drawn from the Garda Special Branch, the army intelligence unit G2, and senior diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

A source in the security world agrees that G2 forms part of the membership, saying: "G2 is a military intelligence unit under a director of the rank of colonel. Its main activities would be scouting out foreign locations where Irish forces would be going on UN postings. G2 would also keep an eye on suspected paramilitary activity at home."

The source believes that the main Garda involvement in the Secret Service is not through the Special Branch, but through the Crime & Security Branch (CSB) which is currently led by Assistant Commissioner Nacie Rice.

According to the Garda website, Rice is a former member of the Special Detective Unit with previous postings in Donegal and Louth. In 1992 he received special FBI training in the USA.

The CSB was formed to replace an earlier, discredited, intelligence unit known as G2. It has been claimed in the national media that at the height of The Troubles in the early 1970s, G2 became so heavily infiltrated by British agents that MI5 was effectively leading the Irish Secret Service by the nose.

It's an established fact that one senior G2 officer had to flee the country after he was outed as a British plant.

Much more recently, Justice Frederick Morris gave G2's successor, the CSB, a slap across the knuckles for being "negligent" in relation to the bizarre goings-on in Donegal surrounding the McBrearty Affair. Justice Morris also noted "the failure of the Department of Justice to impose order and discipline on the force".

There will always be those who'll attribute the failure of successive administrations to impose strict order and discipline on the force to a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

This argument, which insists that the intelligence services have sufficient dirt on their political masters to frustrate attempts at reform has never been proven.

The unarguable fact remains, however, that knowledge is power. In 1980, facing CJ Haughey's government across the Dail chamber, Garret Fitzgerald invoked parliamentary privilege to rail against "the Garda being interfered with" by "political intervention". "Moreover," he complained, "when we in the House have sought to raise these allegations of grave abuses, every effort has been made to intimidate us into not doing our duty by hints that files exist in relation to members of the Oireachtas."

While we don't know the contents of Secret Service files on TDs at the time, we do know some of what US intelligence in Ireland was sending back to the States a couple of years previously.

The White House was informed that Fitzgerald "would be a brilliant leader of any country" while Haughey was "capable, high-powered and ambitious, quite different from run-of-the-mill IRA followers". Of Labour's Justin Keating it was noted: "In 1969 engaged in an anti-apartheid demonstration. Was once a member of the Irish-USSR Society."

According to one source, the US Embassy would today still be sending home similar "open-source" material gleaned from the media and other outlets.

Cooperation between the Irish Secret Service and its US counterpart had been increasing in the years before the terror strikes of September 11, 2001, with FBI training of senior officers increasingly commonplace. A source says: "G2 (army intelligence) would have been helpful to the CSB in the wake of 9/11, helping to heal old wounds between the two halves of the Secret Service. The relationship between the Army and Garda sides had been fractious for some time but word is that it's much improved lately."

As to the secret service budget, the source says: "My sense is that much of the small budget goes on trips to conferences held by bodies such as Interpol (Lyons, France) or the Club de Berne (Switzerland). These provide opportunities for Irish agents to make contacts and get foreign intelligence on the cheap, since we don't have the expense of running an agency like MI6.

"Our Secret Service contributes information to the analysis of the bigger agencies, but we're always net recipients. In Secret Service terms, we'll never be James Bond snooping around, thwarting the baddie and getting the girl. We're the ones asking James Bond's boss what he's found out."

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