The secret wars of a spymaster

By Neil Mackay Home Affairs Editor, The Sunday Herald, November 26, 2000

Gordon Kerr not only ran a secret army unit which helped terrorists to kill innocent people in Ulster, as we revealed last week. He also worked against British intelligence in Cold War Berlin

THERE'S a phrase set aside in the British army for men like Brigadier Gordon Kerr and it's "Green Slime". Soldiers don't mince words, and to regular squaddies and military brass, Kerr and his Intelligence Corps are on roughly the same level as pond life. Highly effective, immensely powerful and very dangerous pond life, but pond life nevertheless.

The Green Slime tag is partly down to the distinctive emerald beret worn by Int Corps, but let's be frank, it's more a nod to Int Corps' back-stabbing, double-dealing and underhand tactics and morals. And Kerr is, after all, the archetypal spy; a spook's spook and a master of dirty tricks and dirty wars. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that there was one thing Kerr wasn't short of during his stint in Berlin during the early 1980s: enemies.

As one of the top spies in the divided city at the height of the Cold War, Kerr's job was taking on the KGB and the East German Stasi.

But his leading role in this cloak and dagger theatre was not enough for Kerr, who is currently the British military attache to Beijing. According to officers, who served with him in Berlin, Kerr's Intelligence Corps unit was also engaged in a dangerous turf war with other seemingly respectable British intelligence agencies which could have had disastrous consequences; it even threatened to undermine and close the last, vital diplomatic links between the British and Russian armies.

"If Kerr's Int Corp had been successful in its hostile takeover of legit British operations, it would have shut down that line of communication during one of the worst periods of the Cold War, and we would have lost our main route to the Russians,"
a former Berlin British intelligence officer said.
"It would have been like hanging up the telephone while trying to negotiate not blowing the world to smithereens."

Kerr's role in the secret Cold War against his own side was a sign of his warped sense of duty and led to the most shameful chapter of Britain's dirty war in Ulster. As the Sunday Herald revealed last week, under Kerr's command, the Force Research Unit (FRU) - the most secretive and dangerous of all the covert British military intelligence groups - regularly passed documents on Catholics and nationalists to loyalist terrorists who they were running as agents.

These loyalist double agents, including the Ulster Defence Association's chief of intelligence, Brian Nelson, were handed packages of photographs and military reports detailing the movements and addresses of potential targets, which in turn were passed to loyalist murder gangs. In total, an estimated 15 civilians died as a result of FRU collusion with loyalist terrorists. One victim of this collusion was the Catholic solicitor, Pat Finucane, who counted a number of prominent republicans among his clients. Other victims included known Provos and high ranking republicans; but a handful - perhaps five - were so-called innocents, people who had no other reason to die other than the fact they were Catholic.

As far as we know, Kerr's activities in Berlin between 1983-85 had less dramatic consequences, although whether that was due to luck or design is still debatable. As commander of Three Intelligence and Security Company, or Three I-Spy, he was in one of the most sensitive intelligence-gathering posts in eastern Europe, and Britain's leading, frontline cold warrior.

Stasi files passed to the Sunday Herald show that during this time Kerr's men carried out more "flag tours" - secret intelligence missions - than the French and US military intelligence put together. An officer who served with Kerr in Berlin said his tactics were

"pointlessly aggressive and confrontational".

Kerr's Int Corps seems to have used the same tactics it employed against the "Sovs" to take on its rivals in other branches of British intelligence in Berlin, particularly a little-known, but essential, outfit called Brixmis.

At the time, Berlin was the fiercest battleground in the spying war between east and west. Against the backdrop of the Afghan war and ever-deteriorating relations with Warsaw Pact countries, one of the few channels of communication left open between the Soviet armies and UK forces in Berlin was Brixmis - the British Commander in Chief's Military Mission to the Commander of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. Brixmis acted as a legitimate military liaison between the Red Army and the British Army on the Rhine. It was trusted by the Russians. Even the USSR army marshall, Pjota Koschewoj, said Brixmis acted with "tact and good manners".

Its "clean" status made Brixmis a key part of the Cold War. But, according to intelligence officers in Berlin at the time, Kerr wanted to take it over. Int Corps began machinating against Brixmis staff. Allegations of spying for the east were made against Brixmis officers and their families, and bad reports found their way back to London on the effectiveness of Brixmis personnel. The intention was clearly for Int Corps to get their own man into Brixmis so that deep-cover spooks could take over every arm of the British Cold War operation against Russia.

"We were run by the straight army, not the Green Slime, and the Soviets knew that,"
one Brixmis officer said.
"'Three I-Spy wanted an Int Corps guy running Brixmis. That would have seen an organisation which was trusted by the Russians taken over by the likes of Kerr, who was, in Soviet eyes, running wild through Berlin at the time. If that had happened, Britain's interests in Germany would have been seriously damaged. The role of Brixmis was to keep open channels of communications between the Russians and British. If Int Corp had taken over, that would have stopped.

"We were the last line in the sand before all-out hostilities. To Russian eyes we were legit. If Kerr's mob had taken over it would have been disastrous. Our role was to build confidence with the Russians and to help prevent a nuclear holocaust. We have to remember we had two major armies involved in a confrontation in Berlin and any misunderstandings could have been fatal."

To make matters worse, Kerr arrived in Berlin at the same time as General Mikhail Zeitzev took over as Commander of the Soviet Armies in Germany. An ultra-hardliner, Zeitzev, or Big Z as British agents called him, pushed the stand-off in Berlin to the brink. During Zeitzev's tenure, an American major was shot dead while spying on Russian tanks, a French NCO was killed and three British soldiers were almost crushed to death by a Soviet armoured patrol. Kerr's behaviour also outraged the head of the Stasi, Erik Meilke, as East German secret police files shown to the Sunday Herald reveal.

A senior intelligence source who served in Berlin said:

"Big Z had decided that he wasn't going to take any prisoners. If Kerr's men had moved into Brixmis, there would have been serious consequences. We were in the middle of a period of sustained hostility. If Kerr's lot had forced a change, that would have been the final break in communications with Russia."

The Sunday Herald's investigation into Kerr's activities - through speaking to his contemporaries and men who served under him in the shadowy world of espionage and counter-insurgency - pieces together a picture of an officer described as "drunk with power"; a brilliant soldier who decided to live life by his own rules, and a man who was, and probably still is, prepared to accept that terrible things must happen for Britain's greater good.

"He's the perfect advocate of the ends justifying the means,"
said one intelligence officer who knew him.

As one would expect for a soldier who is among the top six spies in the UK, there are big gaps in what we know about Kerr. Of his early years, there's little information. We know he comes from Aberdeen, is aged 52, and that he graduated from a Scottish university in 1970. The fog begins to lift around the time he arrives at Glencorse, the training depot for the British army in Scotland, in 1971. His high level of education was a military rarity in those days, and marked him out as a potential big-hitter. Second lieutenant Kerr, army number 489090, was nicknamed Craigie, and was, as his peers from those days recall, a "good chap".

As a young officer in the Gordon Highlanders he served in Cyprus before his first posting to Armagh in 1972 - the bloodiest period of the Ulster Troubles. The high-flyer was appointed an Intelligence Officer, and then the regiment's officer commanding the Intelligence Section. So began his undercover work. Dressed in civvies, he grew long hair to fit in with Ulster's civilian population, drove - and constantly resprayed - an undercover "scout" car and developed relationships with RUC Special Branch, MI5 and terrorist touts, or informers.

By the time he left Ulster in June 1973, he'd helped arrest four leading Provos: Edward Howell, the OC (officer commanding) 2nd PIRA; Raddo Bradley, adjutant of 1st PIRA; Micky McMullan, the OC of 1st PIRA's B company and Thomas Callan, OC 1st PIRA. In 1974, he was promoted to Captain before being posted to the British Army's Intelligence Training Centre in October 1975.

He was briefly with the "Det", the SAS-trained 14th Intelligence Company - the forerunner of the FRU - before being sent to the army's Ulster HQ in Lisburn and then transferring from the Gordons to the Intelligence Corp. At this stage, Kerr vanishes off the radar before resurfacing at the army's Staff College in 1980, where he was promoted to major before moving to Berlin.

After Berlin, he undertook a brief stint as senior instructor with the Special Intelligence Wing in Ashford, Kent. It was a CME - or covert methods of entry team - from Ashford which is alleged to have helped FRU men set fire to offices used by the Stevens Inquiry team in Ulster. Detectives under the command of Scotland Yard's commissioner, Sir John Stevens, are currently investigating FRU collusion with loyalist terrorists and are planning to interview Kerr and arrest a number of FRU staff.

In Ashford, Kerr, and his Irish wife, were involved in the resettling of British Army agents whose cover had been blown while undercover in Ulster. In 1987, now ranking as a colonel, Kerr took over as OC of the FRU; and it was then that civilians started to die in Northern Ireland at the hands of loyalist gunmen, aided and abetted by the security forces. As one FRU source told the Sunday Herald:

"My unit was guilty of conspiring in the murder of civilians in Ulster on about 14 occasions. We were able to take out leading Provos with the help of the UDA. It was a great military coup."

Kerr, according to FRU sources, was not a maverick - he was sanctioned from the top. After leaving the FRU, which still operates today, Kerr returned to Berlin on more intelligence matters and was then promoted to brigadier - hardly evidence that military top brass and the government were displeased with his undercover operations in Ulster.

In army terms, Kerr has what's termed "protezione" - a Mafia term meaning protection. Kerr has connections going right to the heart of the British establishment and his position as military attache to Beijing makes him the effective joint number two in Britain's entire military intelligence operation. It would have been the current chief of the defence staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who is also Int Corps' colonel-commandant, who approved Kerr's promotion.

But Kerr's time may be running out. Stevens has already arrested a clutch of loyalists as part of his inquiry, and charged one FRU member with intimidation of witnesses. The fingerprints of British military intelligence personnel are on documents used by loyalist gangs to plan assassinations. New information, reported on our front page today - revealing how Kerr sanctioned illegal incursions over the Irish border by British military intelligence officers - has prompted diplomatic outrage in Dublin.

All the descriptions of Kerr by the intelligence officers and soldiers we spoke to who worked with him throughout his 30-year career, shared the same view - that Kerr saw himself above the law. Both Ulster FRU officers and Berlin intelligence officers, describe him almost identically.

"Kerr wrote his own moral code. He decided what was morally acceptable in Britain's best interests,"
one Berlin officer said. Or, as FRU sources put it:
"Kerr was the boss of the FRU and the FRU were deciding who could live and who should die in Ireland."

Gordon Kerr's Force Research Unit - a covert British military intelligence cell - passed information to loyalist terrorists, recruited as double agents, which was used to kill Catholics and Republicans in Ulster during the 1980s. The FRU's main agent was Brian Nelson, the UDA's chief intelligence officer. Nelson was later jailed, even though Kerr gave evidence for him in court using the cover-name Colonel J.

© Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, 26/11/2000.

 


Force Research Unit