‘Exploration of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s role in advising (the) British government on the unfolding Northern Ireland crisis after 1968 raises one further issue. If the JIC system was so sophisticated a means of integrating intelligence analysis and setting intelligence priorities by the late 1960s, it follows that it carried ultimate responsibility for the operational as well as the analytical practices of intelligence agencies and departments, in the muddy fields of South Armagh as much as in the committee rooms of Whitehall. Consequently it behoves researchers to continue to probe the question of what the JIC knew, and what it may have chosen not to know, about problems such as security force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, as well as all other aspects of intelligence and counter-terrorism policy and operations relating to the Northern Irish troubles.’ The British Joint Intelligence Committee and Ireland, 1965-72, Eunan O’Halpin, IIIS Discussion Paper No. 211, March 2007, p.4
We do not know whether the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) gave the agent Steak Knife, aka IRA spycatcher Freddie Scappaticci, the necessary legal leeway to murder in order to preserve his cover as possibly the most important British double agent during the Troubles.
But it is simply inconceivable that the JIC did not know all there was to know about Steak Knife, his position in the IRA, his importance to the fight against the IRA and the hard reality that to preserve his place in the organisation, and his value to Britain, he would have to either personally kill, or authorise others to kill.
The JIC would know that to interfere with Steak Knife’s work in the IRA, to shrink with horror from his murderous activity and end it, would be not just to doom him but to deprive the British government of a uniquely well-placed agent whose potential to undermine the IRA was irreplaceable.
The Joint Intelligence Committee brings together, inter alia, senior members of MI6, MI5, GHCQ and Defence Intelligence, as well as high-ranking officials from other government departments. Representative from close allies, such as the United States, are allowed to sit in for at least part of their weekly meetings.
The JIC’s job, simply, is to advise the British prime minister of the day on available policy options, especially in foreign policy, defence and internal security matters, based upon the intelligence that is fed into its range of committees and sub-committees.
In the case of Steak Knife, the JIC would assess his value and advise the British leader of the day on how best to use him against his comrades in the IRA. Assuming political approval was forthcoming his handlers, and their allies in Northern Ireland, would be instructed accordingly.
Steak Knife’s unique value lay in the terms of reference given to the IRA’s spycatchers, the Internal Security Unit, when it was conceived in the internment cages of Long Kesh in the mid-1970’s and established in the late 1970’s.
Amazingly, the IRA had given spy catching a low priority during the early years of the Troubles; spotting possible infiltrators was a task left to Company Intelligence Officers (IO’s) who often had other priorities. Occasionally, as in the Four Square Laundry affair, this approach worked but largely by luck.
This haphazard approach was an indication, perhaps, of the IRA’s confidence that it could inflict a speedy defeat on the British.
When it became apparent that this was not going to happen and that the IRA was going to have to engage instead in ‘a long war’ against the British, then defending the organisation against British infiltration acquired a new priority.
The Internal Security Unit (ISU) was the product of this thinking and it was given considerable powers which added to Scappaticci’s value as an agent. Prime amongst these was the authority to investigate any IRA operation that had gone awry, to question and probe all those involved and to access any part of the IRA deemed appropriate in the search for traitors.
This would have given the ISU a unique oversight of the IRA and its membership, allowing the British, via Steak Knife, to identify the IRA’s battle order, to spot candidates for recruitment, to identify their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and in that way to broaden and deepen the infiltration of the IRA.
We don’t yet know for a fact that this happened but that it did is a reasonable and even compelling assumption. If so then the ISU thus became the gateway to the subversion of the organisation.
Ironically, it was this power that led to Scappaticci’s fall. In the 1992-1993 period he launched an investigation of the Army Council and demanded the right to question its seven-man leadership.
The then Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna was outraged and sacked Scappaticci and his staff. He returned to Belfast and to a quieter life, disturbed only when the former Force Research Unit agent handler, Ian Hurst began talking about him to the media in 1999.
With the first IRA ceasefire only a year or so away one can only assume that Scappaticci’s British handlers were behind the ill-fated move. What that plan was and if it existed at all remains one of the intriguing mysteries from the Troubles.
But it is arguable that by this stage in the IRA’s journey towards the peace process, the loss of Steak Knife was less of a blow than it seemed. One British estimate of infiltration at this time had one in three IRA members working for either MI5, RUC Special Branch or the FRU. Steak Knife, it seems, may have done his work.
There are few in-depth studies of the Joint Intelligence Committee and even fewer that have examined its work in Northern Ireland. A paper written by Trinity College Dublin historian, Eunan O’Halpin in 2007 for the Institute of International Integration Studies is the only discussion about the JIC and the Troubles admits that access to the that I was able to locate.
And even so the extent of JIC’s Irish files available to O’Halpin at the British government archive at Kew was, to say the least, limited: “…almost all material with an Irish dimension”, he wrote, “remains closed.”
This is how he described the place of the JIC in the British system:
The JIC sits at the apex of the British intelligence system; equally significantly, it is located within the Cabinet Office. By the 1960s it had acquired a quasi-judicial status in Whitehall: it was taken to be dispassionate, cerebral, and non-partisan, favouring the interests or arguments of non-individual agency or department, fearlessly putting forward independent assessments of threats to and opportunities for Britain based on all available intelligence from whatever source.
Another way of looking at the JIC is to regard it as a clearing house for intelligence. Reports are sent in to the JIC from the various agencies, digested and assessed by the vast array of working and sub-committees that populate the JIC’s bureaucacy and then presented to the full JIC which in turn deliberates and then compiles policy options for the prime minister of the day who then, in cabinet, decides what the policy will be.
Steak Knife was owned and run by the Force Research Unit (FRU) but that did not mean that his handlers were free to use him in any way they wished. If normal procedures were followed, the JIC would decide how to best utilise his skills and the final decision would be made by the prime minister of the day.
In his ‘interview’ with FRU whistleblower Ian Hurst, former GOC General Sir John Wilsey claimed that MI5/RUC really had ownership of Steak Knife’s product, an assertion consistent with a possible JIC directive. :
‘The Force Research Unit worked for MI5 and for the RUC, and all the (Steak Knife) product went to them.’
This suggests that the JIC had ordered this to happen.
Although documentary evidence was sparse, Eunan O’Halpin did come across some files in the archive at Kew that helped explain why the JIC was especially necessary in Northern Ireland.
For years, the JIC took only occasional interest in Ireland. Amid exaggerated warnings in 1966 of an IRA uprising from the RUC, a flurry of meetings preceded the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising but once that crisis had passed uneventfully, Ireland didn’t figure until the civil rights movement emerged on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1968.
Following the October 5th march in Derry, the JIC set up an ‘Ulster Working Group’ to monitor events and co-opted the Head of RUC Special Branch. But with London’s growing involvement and need for better intelligence becoming ever more urgent, so friction grew between the local RUC and especially the British Army. This intensified when the Army arrived in Belfast and Derry in August 1969 to replace the exhausted and discredited police.
By the summer of 1969, Northern Ireland featured fairly regularly in JIC business. In May the chief of the army general staff complained that the RUC ‘is jealous of its independence .. the Minister for Home Affairs .. is being told only what the Inspector General deems it fit that he should hear’, a judgement duly reported to prime minister Harold Wilson. It was plain that London needed to know more about what was happening and what was likely to happen. In July the Home Office circulated a report to the JIC on ‘on the progress made in improving intelligence assessments and providing intelligence coverage of the Ulster situation’. The JIC also reflected on emerging difficulties and friction between the RUC, anxious lest any other government agency collect and forward intelligence to London independently of it, and MI5 and the army. For the next six months this became a rolling theme in JIC business…..
As the honeymoon between the British Army and the Nationalists of Belfast and Derry began to sour, and the IRA geared up for war, so the problem of RUC unwillingness to share intelligence with the military festered. The competition and suspicion that characterised police-army relations at this time would be an abiding feature of the security landscape for many years, not least rendering Panorama’s claim that during this period the RUC handed over ‘Steak Knife’ to the military hard to accept.
In January 1970 the director general of MI5 (Dick White) visited Northern Ireland to discuss future security and intelligence arrangements, a clear signal that London was now taking the Northern Ireland problem seriously. The available JIC records do not say much about the detailed outcome of those discussions, although intelligence arrangements remained problematic due to the reluctance of the RUC and the British army to share material systematically and comprehensively: two years later the departing JIC secretary reported that ‘since all action has to be achieved by persuasion rather than by direct intervention, the rate of progress remains regrettably slow in some fields’. The saga of inadequate police-army cooperation in Northern Ireland was to continue for at least another decade.
Without the JIC around to butt heads or pour oil on angry waters, it is possible that the intelligence war against the IRA would have much been more problematic.
According to O’Halpin by the mid-1970’s the JIC was calling the shots in the intelligence war:
It is clear that by the mid-1970s the techniques and parameters of intelligence collection and counter-terrorist operations were not determined at the local, tactical level, but by reference to policy laid down from on high.
It was in the mid-1970’s – 1976/77 if Sir John Wilsey’s account is accurate – that Peter Jones recruited Freddie Scappaticci and just two years later that he joined, or was steered by his handlers towards the IRA’s new Internal Security Unit.
If O’Halpin is correct then the ‘techniques and parameters’ of his work with the ISU on behalf of British intelligence were decided not by Peter Jones or his FRU bosses but by the grey suits seated around the JIC’s table at 70 Whitehall, London each Thursday morning.
Amongst those ‘techniques and parameters’ would be Scappaticci’s role in executing or ordering the execution of IRA informers.
But would the mandarins actually have given Scappaticci permission to kill without any possibility of sanction? Would they even have the legal powers to make such a promise? Would that not make them accessories before and after the fact?
Common sense, a rudimentary knowledge of the criminal law and the natural caution of the bureaucrat combine to suggest that the JIC would not have given a clear answer to any of those questions. So how to deal with this problem?
There are times when taking a decision not to make a decision is actually a decision, and this may have been one of those occasions.
By not taking a position of the question of Scappaticci’s culpability for murder – but allowing it to happen nonetheless – the JIC would enjoy the luxury of benefiting from his intelligence product while not officially sharing in the burden of what he was doing to obtain it. There would be nothing on paper to incriminate the functionaries?
A classic British solution perhaps? But wasn’t that just another way of sanctioning Scappaticci’s death-dealing ways?
Perhaps Chief Constable Boutcher of Operation Kenova will eventually tell us….
- * * *
An answer to that question may also lie in the character and temperament of the prime minister on whose desk the issue would eventually reside. And it is well to remember that bureaucrats survive and prosper by accurately reading their master’s – or mistresses’ – minds and wishes.
Three British prime ministers were in office during the years of Scappaticci’s career as a British spy: Jim Callaghan served between April 1976 and May 1979; John Major between November 1990 to May 1997 and Margaret Thatcher from May 1979 to November 1990.
Callaghan had the least to do with Scappaticci’s career as a spycatcher. The ISU may have been set up after he left office but it is possible, if Peter Jones had, for instance, steered Scappaticci towards the planned ISU in the months before it began its work that Callaghan may have known something about the legal and moral quandry surrounding Steak Knife’s employment. But unlikely.
John Major was around for just two years or so of Scappaticci’s service for British intelligence and these were the final years, when the IRA was also moving slowly towards its first ceasefire. His usefulness was fading and then ended within two or three years of Major entering Downing Street.
Margaret Thatcher on the other hand was prime minister for the bulk of Scappaticci’s time working for the British government. An official account of Thatcher’s dealings with the Joint Intelligence Committee paints her as someone who was, in the words one Cabinet colleague, ‘besotted with intelligence’ and fascinated by the JIC’s work.
She was the first prime minister to attend a meeting of the JIC, regularly read and commented on its reports and kept in close touch during the eleven or so years of her premiership. Given the loss of her close friend and confidante, Airey Neave at the hands of the INLA and the fact that IRA activity, inside and outside the jails, dominated her first years in office, it is not hard to imagine her following Steak Knife’s career with special interest.
Nor, if she was asked, would it be difficult to surmise what her attitude would be to the JIC’s legal and moral dilemma over Steak Knife’s activity.
Here, from the British government’s own blog, is an account of Thatcher’s relationship with the JIC. Enjoy:
Soon after taking office a new Prime Minister receives special briefings from the Cabinet Secretary. One is on the ‘letters of last resort’, which give instructions to the commander of the British submarine on patrol with the nuclear deterrent, in the event of an attack that destroys the Government. Another briefing outlines the structure and control of the intelligence machinery, including the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in the Cabinet Office. Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary in 1979, briefed Margaret Thatcher on the intelligence structure, including counter-subversion activities, the day after her election victory of 3 May.
Margaret Thatcher arrives at Number 10 Downing Street 1979
Thatcher had started a programme of visits to Government departments to see first-hand what some of the 732,000 officials inherited from James Callaghan’s administration actually did. In September, during a routine briefing by Brian Tovey, the Director of GCHQ, Thatcher showed great interest in the way in which intelligence was collated and assessed by the JIC, stressing that assessment should be free from policy (or political) considerations. She also expressed a wish to attend a JIC meeting. It would be the first time a Prime Minister had attended the JIC since its creation in 1936.
It fell to Sir John Hunt, a former Secretary of the JIC, to make the arrangements, but there were complications. First, the JIC Chairman, Sir Antony Duff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), had also been made Deputy Governor of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the British Government assumed direct rule of the rebellious colony. He was a key participant in the Lancaster House Conference, aiming finally to settle the Rhodesian problem, and could not be sure to attend the JIC until after its conclusion. Second, the JIC normally met on Thursday mornings in 70 Whitehall, which was also when the Cabinet met in 10 Downing Street, so a special JIC meeting would need to be arranged.
Extra work was also needed. The agenda of the Committee typically related to events of immediate interest and focused on Soviet (and other powers’) capabilities, opportunities and aims. Thatcher had asked deeper questions about the longer-term motivation and intentions of the Soviet Government and it was thought wise to include papers on this topic at the JIC meeting she was to attend. Two relevant papers were in preparation. One covered the long-term aims of Soviet foreign policy, but not the underlying motivation. A second sought to define the characteristics of the Soviet Union in the forthcoming decade. Hunt also commissioned a third, to analyse, in depth, the broader thinking and rationale of the Soviet leaders.
In a briefing note prepared for Thatcher by the JIC’s Secretary and the Intelligence Co-ordinator, the JIC’s main responsibilities were described, including the difference between policy-making officials and elected ministers:
[the JIC’s] main function is to assemble, evaluate and present joint intelligence on events, situations and problems in the field of external affairs and defence as may be required by the Cabinet, individual Ministers or the Chiefs of Staff, or as the Committee consider necessary. This means that the JIC provides a forum for the approval of interdepartmentally agreed assessments where the main customer Departments for intelligence are brought together with the intelligence agencies. The JIC provides assessments for use by policy makers; it is not within its terms of reference to discuss policy or make policy recommendations.
Thatcher’s visit took place on Friday, leap year day 1980, in the JIC room (room 215) in the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall. It began at 10.00am immediately after she had chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Office Oversea and Defence Committee. She was provided with a ‘quicker, more convenient and discrete route’ to the room, using a ‘normally unused security door’. Thatcher set aside a full two hours for the session which took place under high security – even her own official diary merely contained a bland entry: “Keep free for Cabinet Office.” She sat at the head of the conference table between Sir Antony Acland (who had succeeded Duff as Chairman) and Sir Robert Armstrong, the new Cabinet Secretary. All members of the Committee attended, including the ten British officials from intelligence and policy departments, ranging from the Chief of the JIC Assessments Staff and ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, to representatives from the FCO and Ministry of Defence, and the Intelligence Co-ordinator. Also in attendance, as was normal, were representatives of the UK’s closest allies, who were present for the discussion of current intelligence and then withdrew.
The JIC Chairman opened proceedings by welcoming the Prime Minister and declaring that her presence was ‘as far as could be established without precedence’, continuing that ‘the Committee were gratified and encouraged by the Prime Minister’s interest in intelligence, and her attendance at this meeting would be a stimulus to its work’. The Committee then discussed, as was customary, items of current intelligence.
Thatcher offered her support for these regular, weekly updates but also suggested that the language they employed was ‘nuanced’. ‘It would be helpful’, she explained, ‘if key judgments in the assessments could be highlighted by placing them in eye-catching sentences couched in plainly expressed language’. This was an understandable criticism of the JIC papers, but also suggested a potentially dangerous precedent, for it implied making often vague and fragmentary intelligence clearer and more definitive than it necessarily ought to be. Perhaps as a result, Acland agreed to ‘consider’ revising their ‘presentation’.
The Committee then moved onto its more substantive work, following the withdrawal of the allied liaison officers, considering a longer draft assessment on Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s, focussing on how the recent invasion of Afghanistan might affect future decisions. Thatcher did not intervene, and there is no record of her expressing any views on the topic. Thereafter several minor administrative matters were discussed, relating to the ‘utility of JIC assessments’.
Thatcher later commented how valuable the session had been in helping her to see the Committee’s reports in context. She left the Committee with views on how the material should best be presented for ministerial consumption, stating that ‘the work of the Committee is of considerable importance and it is essential therefore that it should be presented to the best effect.’ Quite what Thatcher intended has not been preserved; neither has any record of an internal discussion within the JIC structure. In practice there was a change, though it does not seem to have followed from the specific point raised by the Prime Minister. Items of current intelligence in the Weekly Survey of Intelligence or ‘Red Book’, as it is known, had, until that point, provided details of the sources of intelligence. Following Thatcher’s intervention these were removed.
Margaret Thatcher continued to take a close interest in the working of the Committee, ranging from frequent annotations on its weekly reports to a more critical discussion with Sir Patrick Wright (Acland’s successor as Chairman) on 25 April 1982, just over three weeks after the surprise Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. The subsequent review, chaired by retired diplomat Lord Franks, recommended that future JIC Chairmen should be independent and appointed by the Prime Minister. According to her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, Thatcher was ‘positively besotted’ by intelligence. Part of the explanation is provided in the recollections of the final JIC Chairman under Thatcher, Sir Percy Cradock, who eloquently summarised her views and passion:
Mrs Thatcher respected intelligence and had a keen appetite for it. She was aware from personal experience that we lived in a dangerous world… She was aware that Britain had a powerful intelligence machine, was good at the game, and enjoyed in consequence valuable influence in Washington. That mattered… The value and prestige of the intelligence services gained in consequence. How was policy affected? The policy-makers were well informed and often forearmed. British ministers had consistently better briefs than foreign colleagues. The Prime Minister was given the underpinning for a robust and expert response to the multifarious threats to the British interests…