A chink of light in the very secret world of MI5 - Omagh email highlighted lack of effectiveness in intelligence sharing

18 August 2006

A towering truck driver descended from Mohawk indians provided the most difficult challenge to the Government's Ulster plans for MI5.

Early in 2006, almost a year after the secret agency's expansion in Ulster had been announced, PSNI officers told relatives of the Omagh bomb victims about an email sent to MI5 by David Rupert, a 6ft 6ins FBI informant eight years earlier.

 

Rupert, who had penetrated dissident republicans, had warned MI5 on April 11, 1998, that they were planning to target Omagh. The warning was acted on, but was not passed to the RUC.

The emergence of the email was clearly embarrassing to the authorities at the time when MI5 was already preparing to take charge of anti-terrorism in Northern Ireland. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, refused to meet the Omagh relatives to discuss it, and her boss - Home Secretary, John Reid - has failed to even respond to a similar request.

In one respect, the significance of the Rupert email is open to question - the bombing team he warned about was not the same one that carried out the Omagh bombing, so it does not appear to be a case of MI5 having direct knowledge of the killers and letting them through.

But there is no way of knowing if the warning could have caused the RUC to pay more attention to the threat against Omagh, and that is an issue that goes to the heart of intelligence reforms.

A crucial issue in the transformation of the police concerned intelligence sharing - or lack of it - between Special Branch and the rest of the police. It was a point that drew criticism from Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan in her report on the Omagh investigation.

Steps had been taken to tear down walls that existed within the police, but the revelation about the Rupert email raised concerns that new walls would go up in their place.

If MI5 was keeping information to itself when the RUC was supposed to have primacy over intelligence, how much or little would get through when MI5 takes charge?

After much wrangling behind the scenes - notably with the PSNI, the Policing Board and some parties - the Government took steps to address that issue with last week's St Andrews Agreement.

It promises publicly that the PSNI will continue to run most informers and - for the first time - acknowledges that there will be "integrated working arrangements".

PSNI officers will work in MI5's new Northern Ireland building "in a variety of roles including as intelligence analysts/advisors and for the purpose of translating intelligence into executive action".

Even if that is intelligence sharing taken care of, though sources are cautious about saying the problem is solved, there are still unanswered questions about MI5's role.

Chief among these for the SDLP is accountability when something goes wrong. The Government paper at St Andrews trumpeted current oversight arrangements for MI5, but most of these are less than transparent.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan says the Government will be pushed to go further, notably because he says the innocent have less recourse to complaint than those targeted by the system.

"We still have a complaints system under which Osama can complain about being got at by MI5, but the Omagh victims cannot complain about being let down by MI5," he said. "We need to improve that."