The extraordinary story of the Yank, the Real IRA, and Saddam Hussein
In the 1990s, a trucker from upstate New York took on the unlikeliest of roles — spying on the Real IRA for the FBI. Sean O’Driscoll tells the extraordinary tale of David Rupert
The Iraqi agent arrived into the hotel lobby and greeted the Real IRA chief with a warm handshake and a big smile. Michael McDonald, a member of the Real IRA’s army council, was there to pull off the IRA’s greatest ever coup — winning Saddam Hussein over to dissident republicanism. Saddam wanted the Real IRA to unleash mayhem on London. They were more than willing to oblige, especially if Saddam was willing to supply tonnes of Semtex, rocket propelled grenades and sophisticated wire-guided missiles that could be steered to their target.
The chief of staff of the Real IRA, Mickey McKevitt, was eagerly waiting in Dundalk for news of the meeting.
But what McDonald, McKevitt and the Real IRA army council didn’t know is that the Iraqi agent was, in fact, an MI5 agent. He had been recruited for work in the Middle East and was the perfect front for an MI5 sting operation against the Real IRA. MI5 agents were waiting outside the Dublin hotel in case anything went wrong. The mission was being kept top secret from the gardaí, in case there was any leaks, and Operation Samnite, as it became known, involved 50 agents.
Bugged by the FBI
What the Real IRA also didn’t realise is that, also in Dublin, an American tourist named David Rupert was on the third and final day of making a statement to gardaí at Harcourt garda station. Rupert, a trucker from upstate New York, filled page after page of detail about the inner works of the Real IRA — how they imported weapons, how they fundraised, their plans for the future, where they held their army council meetings, who was on the council.
Rupert had been recruited as an FBI undercover agent to operate in dissident republican groups. He had spent seven years undercover. He had an office in Chicago that the FBI bugged so he could record conversations. He wore an FBI wire when a senior Real IRA figure came to the US. He was so successful undercover in Ireland that he had been invited on to the Real IRA army council. The FBI had introduced him to MI5, who would meet him in Paris or London for debriefings after his frequent visits to Ireland.
Rupert was valuable to them — he had also become close friends with Real IRA chief McKevitt, who let him in on his biggest secret — that he was sending representatives to international conferences in the hope of finding a sponsor, most likely Saddam. MI5 immediately got to work, setting up an elaborate sting operation to capture the Real IRA army council, holding Saddam out as a lure.
When the Dublin meeting was over, McDonald went back up to Dundalk to tell McKevitt the good news that Saddam was on board. Meanwhile, at Harcourt garda station, the gardaí were waiting for night-time so that they could spirit Rupert up to Louth to identify the places he had identified in his statement. They drove in convoy, arriving after 1am. Rupert wasn’t allowed garda help — he had to guide the convoy to the three houses to prove his authenticity. He passed. By 4.30am, they were back in Dublin and an exhausted Rupert wrote to the FBI from his hotel room, called his wife, Maureen, and fell fast asleep. His seven years as an undercover FBI agent had come to an end.
He made for an unlikely IRA member. Standing at 6ft 7in and weighing 21 stone, the former wrestler and forester had no Irish connections.
He did, however, have a very big interest in women, and that is what would eventually bring him to work for the FBI and MI5 while infiltrating the very heart of the Continuity IRA and, later, the Real IRA.
While partying in a beach bar in Florida in 1992, he heard Irish folk music coming from a pub across the road. He wandered over. There he met a beautiful Irish-American woman named Linda Vaughan.
A major Democratic Party operative, that year she ran the Florida campaign for Massachussetts senator Paul Tsongas, who was running for president. She was also a fundraiser for Irish republicanism.
Rupert was besotted with her and feigned some knowledge. Within months, she had invited him to Ireland to meet republican friends.
After a few visits, the huge American had come to the attention of the Irish Special Branch, who covertly photographed him. They passed the photographs to the FBI, who repeatedly called to Rupert’s trucking company in Chicago until, eventually, he agreed to FBI-funded trips to Ireland in exchange for small pieces of information about republicans. After the Omagh bomb in 1998, his mission became all the more urgent. By now, the FBI had contacted MI5, who needed someone in the larger — and deadlier — Real IRA.
At the same time, many Continuity IRA members were becoming disillusioned with its narrow, anachronistic and Catholic outlook. Rupert was friends with one of them, who drifted over to the Real IRA and told McKevitt about the wealthy American who was bringing envelopes of $10,000 in cash over several times a year.
McKevitt fell for it — he wanted to poach Rupert for the Real IRA. He, Rupert and the Real IRA’s deputy leader, Seamus McGrane, had a meeting at a hotel in Monaghan. Rupert and McKevitt instantly liked each other. In emails to MI5, Rupert can barely contain his excitement. MI5 were also ecstatic.
McKevitt liked Rupert so much that he suggested, with the approval of dissident republicans in America, that Rupert sit in on the Real IRA army council to verify that the US money was being well spent.
After the Dublin meeting, MI5 recorded 19 phone calls, in which McKevitt and three other army council members offered to travel to Baghdad to select the weapons to be shipped to Ireland.
In his final phone call, McKevitt was angry with the Iraqis that they had not yet sent millions of dollars to an untraceable Irish bank account, as they had promised. He went to bed angry. The next morning, he was awoken by a thunderous knock on the door. It was the Irish Special Branch.
He was taken to a garda station, where 700 questions had already been prepared for him. He noticed his interviews were dwelling on one subject. “Do you know a David Rupert from the USA?” “Do you know Dave Rupert?” “How long did you know David Rupert?”
It was the first indication for McKevitt that he had been betrayed. He was taken directly to the Special Criminal Court in Dublin and charged with the new, post-Omagh offence of directing terrorism. The court ruled that Rupert was a “very truthful” witness and jailed McKevitt for 20 years.
Rupert and his wife, Maureen, live under multiple layers of FBI-created identities in the US. In 2008, there was an attempt by a Real IRA leader in Northern Ireland to obtain Rupert’s real social security number, but the PSNI alerted the FBI and Rupert bumped up his security. In all, he made nearly $10m from his work for the FBI.
He says now: “At the time, it didn’t seem as scary to me as it does now. I know now that I’m lucky to be alive.”
‘The Accidental Spy’ by Sean O’Driscoll is published by Mirror Books