How The RUC Special Branch Operated During The Troubles

More invaluable historical information from the MacLean Report on the 1997 killing of LVF leader Billy Wright by the INLA inside the Maze prison, this time about the operation of the RUC Special Branch and allied intelligence bodies. Some of the detail refers specifically to issues raised by the Wright slaying but that does not detract in the slightest from the value of this study:

The Royal Ulster Constabulary

5.37 During the period with which the Inquiry has been concerned, the police force in Northern Ireland was known as the RUC. Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a major review of policing was undertaken by the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, chaired by Christopher Patten, which reported in 1999, and as a result of which the police force changed its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the office of Police Ombudsman was established. This accounts for the references in this Report both to the RUC and to the PSNI.

The Role and Structure of Special Branch

5.38 The function of SB in Northern Ireland was to collect, process and assess information about subversive groups, organisations and individuals from all available sources, and to disseminate security intelligence to those who needed to know it and were authorised to receive it. In 1997 the SB led the counter-terrorist effort in Northern Ireland, and most of the intelligence was either collected by or available to SB. Its relationship with other agencies is touched upon later, but the most important fact which differentiated the intelligence role of the SB in Northern Ireland from what happened in other parts of the UK was that SB had the lead role: elsewhere it was the Security Service which took on that responsibility, but in Northern Ireland the Security Service and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) were subordinate to the SB. The importance of SB in the sphere of intelligence cannot be overstated.

5.39 The second important principle which operated in Northern Ireland was that within SB there was an unusual degree of devolution from Headquarters (SB HQ) to the three Regions. Intelligence work went on at three levels: at RUC HQ, in the three Regions (Belfast, known as E5; North, known as E6; and South, known as E7/8), and in the 27 sub-divisions or local centres of SB operation. Each Regional Head of Special Branch (RHSB) exercised a remarkable degree of devolved authority, and not all intelligence gathered by and available to the Region was passed on to SB HQ. This arrangement, so unlike what was done in other parts of the UK, was said to be because the sheer volume of information during the Troubles could not have been handled by a single headquarters office.

5.40 The PSNI in their final submission pointed out that not all departments were intended to know what the other departments were doing. The PSNI assert that this was not an exceptional or unusual feature of an organisation dealing with intelligence where there was an ever present risk of infiltration or chance compromise. The officers in each department knew that if a function was required it could be actioned, but they did not necessarily know the manner in which it was going to be actioned by one of the related departments within SB. The PSNI emphasised that it was a system that operated on a strict ‘need to know’ principle, and it must be viewed in the particular context of an extremely difficult era.

Computerisation

5.41 The Inquiry has been considerably frustrated by the inability of the PSNI to produce comprehensive written documentation to cover the period with which we have been dealing, and this particular difficulty has been exacerbated by the fact that during the late 1990s a changeover was taking place from ‘hard copy’ records to computerised records.

5.42 No clearly reliable information has been found about precisely how and when decisions about computerisation were taken, nor about how the implementation was to take place. The Inquiry remains puzzled and frustrated that details of such an important move appear not to have been retained by the PSNI.

5.43 The computer systems in use by SB were relatively basic, and they were not the same at each level of operation. At the important Regional level, the computer system in use was called PRISM. At SB HQ, the system used to create and manage the RUC database was known as CAISTER, a name which was subsequently changed to MACER. The Inquiry has heard conflicting evidence about when the change of name took place, one witness believing that it happened in 1997, but acknowledging that it might not have changed until 1999. In any case, the two computer systems were not compatible, and PRISM was not networked to CAISTER/MACER. There was a PRISM computer terminal in SB HQ in 1997, and the SB HQ personnel made use of it from time to time.

5.44 The Inquiry has heard how information from sources was typed onto PRISM at Regional SB HQ. If it was felt that the information should be shared, it was transferred in handwriting to a document known as an SB50, or to a SIR at the Regional Source Unit (RSU). SB50s were gradually phased out during the late 1990s in favour of SIRs. Not all PRISM debriefs became SIRs, but those that did arrived at SB HQ desks on the MACER system and were stored in a stack on the MACER terminal.

5.45 There were cases where the intelligence needed to be more widely disseminated, but with more careful control over the content. This was particularly the case if it needed to be shared with the MOD, and in this case, a Secret Intelligence Dissemination Document was prepared, in which the intelligence had been further sanitised.

5.46 Former Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Sam Kinkaid told the Inquiry that Regions retained control over the wording of Intelligence Reports (INTREPs) and their dissemination, primarily for reasons of source protection, and that not all information about serious crime that should have been disseminated was in fact shared with those who needed to know it. The ‘need to know’ criterion was used excessively, and with sometimes unhappy results in terms of the failure to share important information.

5.47  The nature of each computer system meant that there were serious shortcomings in terms of the use and analysis of intelligence. Witness ZCQ, who worked until June 1997 as Detective Chief Inspector on the Republican Desk at SB HQ (Desk E3A – see later in this Chapter for further details), said in evidence:‘… the old paper system was much easier to deal with … When computerisation came along, the way that the system was configured meant that different people could carry out searches in different ways, and at different times could actually produce different results. So I think the computerisation, rather than bringing us the aid it was meant to, actually posed us a number of difficulties in terms of retrieving material in as simple a fashion as we used to be able to do with the paper system.’That particular difficulty needs to be borne in mind when considering the way in which SB handled intelligence material, and the success (or otherwise) with which it was analysed and assessed.

The Warner Report

5.48 An important development which influenced the structure and working of RUC SB during the period covered by this Inquiry was A Review of Special Branch conducted by Sir Gerald Warner. This arose out of a perception by the UK government that there were shortcomings in the quality and strategic analysis of intelligence in Northern Ireland, and that a revised structure for SB, with a stronger emphasis on analysis, made possible by the introduction of trained analysts, would be highly beneficial. The breakdown of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) ceasefire, with the planting of the Canary Wharf bomb in February 1996, had not been clearly foreseen by the intelligence agencies, despite the many indications of stresses in the ceasefire. There was a clear need to improve the processes by which political and strategic intelligence was collected and analysed. The Warner changes were introduced in the latter half of 1997, and resulted in the creation of a new Intelligence Management Group (IMG) to oversee and direct the work done by the existing departments known as E3 and E9.

5.49 The role of the IMG was fivefold: to act as the central collection point through which all operational, strategic and political intelligence arrived at RUC HQ from the SB regions and elsewhere; to act as the central point for decision making about the further dissemination of intelligence; to coordinate and guide the intelligence strategy of RUC SB; to conduct briefings and meetings with the Source Units in the regions (see paragraphs 5.70 and 5.71) in order to improve the flow of intelligence; and to provide the Head of Special Branch (HSB), as well as the various security and intelligence committees in Northern Ireland, with briefings and intelligence. In February 1998 the processes were further improved by the agreement of a Memorandum of Understanding between the IMG and the Assessments Group (AsGp) of the Security Service, setting out the respective roles of the two groups in the assessment and dissemination of intelligence.

5.50 Diagrammatic explanations of the structure of SB both pre-Warner and post-Warner are to be found at Appendix D to this Report. For the purposes of this Inquiry it is important to note that the crucial warnings regarding the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) threat to the life of Billy Wright in April 1997, communicated by the Security Service to RUC SB, arrived before the Warner changes were implemented, and the lead addressees were the Chief Superintendent Intelligence, the Superintendent E3 and Deputy, E3 Republican Desk, Superintendent E9 for E9A and E9D, Desk Officers, DI E3E, RHSB(B) and Superintendents as appropriate.

The Departments of Special Branch

5.51 By the time of the murder of Billy Wright, the Warner Recommendations appear to have been implemented, so reference will be made here to the structure of SB as it was post-Warner. E1 was an administrative department; E2 dealt with training; E3, part of the new IMG, included the desks which handled intelligence about paramilitary activity. These were known as E3A in the case of the republican groups, and E3B in the case of loyalist groups. In addition to this there was Central Desk, formerly E9A, which concentrated on running ‘lifestyle’ operations, intended to build up an intelligence picture of different paramilitary groups and individual members of them. It also focused on high-level strategic targets, particularly within the PIRA. Its work was directed by the Intelligence Review Committee (IRC), a high-level body which was able to assess priorities for the work of Central Desk (see 5.90).

5.52 The regular morning meeting was a key feature of SB operation, both at HQ and at regional level. At HQ the morning meeting was attended by the head and deputy head of IMG and the heads of the Republican and Loyalist Desks and of E9A (later Central Desk). The main purpose of the meeting was to carry out a review of the intelligence which had been collated in the previous 24 hours, and to discuss what action, if any, was needed. Information was shared and briefings prepared for the HSB and his Deputy (DHSB), who would in turn brief the Chief Constable. Similar morning meetings took place in each Region, and briefings from the RHSB reached the HSB at HQ by mid-morning. No notes or minutes were taken at these morning meetings, but decisions were taken in the light of the current intelligence position, and whoever was nominated to take any specific action noted this down in his day book, which was a police-issued A4-size notebook. These books were not retained, which means that there is an absence of an audit trail of decisions taken at morning meetings. The Inquiry has heard conflicting evidence about the attendance at the daily morning meeting at HQ, but it seems more likely that the heads of desks met daily with the HSB and head of IMG, notwithstanding the claim by the latter that such meetings were only weekly. It was the role of SB HQ to be primarily concerned with strategic intelligence, and the head of the IMG had little knowledge of day-to-day tactical operations, organised by the Regional Tasking and Co-ordinating Groups (TCGs, described in more detail in 5.66 to 5.68).

5.53 E4 consisted of two departments, one of which ran surveillance operations (E4A). Some such operations were the responsibility of SB HQ although the majority of surveillance operations were run by the Regions (see below). The other department was known as the Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSU), which provided teams of uniformed officers, including firearms teams, to carry out operations.

5.54 E5, E6, and E7/8 remained the same post-Warner as they had been previously, i.e. the regions of SB to which so much work was devolved.

5.55 The Head of the IMG met daily with the HSB, and (probably) with the heads of the desks, and less frequently with what was called the Senior Management Group. The daily morning meetings were about current events and problems, while the relatively infrequent Senior Management Group meetings were more to do with costs and policy, and involved RHSBs.

Contact between Special Branch HQ and Other Agencies

5.56 The E3A and E3B desks were the point of contact with other intelligence agencies, notably the Security Service and the MOD. They liaised with these agencies, and received intelligence from them. Security Service intelligence normally came to E3 by secure telex. It was then printed off in hard copy and circulated through the desks. SB received NIIRs in hard copy from the Security Service: these were a sanitised version of the raw intelligence. Copies were circulated to a defined readership for their information, but then returned to the Security Service with one copy retained in the registry. The information would then be entered onto the computer database as an INTREP, from which it could be retrieved by those qualified to have access to it. There might on occasion be disagreements between SB and the Security Service about intelligence, about its reliability or accuracy, and there were ways of flagging up such disagreements and seeking to resolve them. Witness FG, then an SB officer in E3A, claimed that the Security Service would not normally have intelligence of which SB were not already aware, since SB were the lead agency. He also made the point that there was a greater awareness within the Security Service of the political context of intelligence, and less concern with operational details. The Inquiry has, however, heard a good deal of evidence to indicate that the Security Service did in fact have access to much intelligence which was not known to SB and which they passed on to the RUC.

5.57 It was the responsibility of the desks to prepare assessments of intelligence for the benefit of senior management within the RUC. These took the form of Intelligence Management Group Intelligence Reports (IMGIRs), which were composite documents, drawing together a number of strands of reporting into a single document.

5.58 A further link between SB and the Security Service was provided by the Security Service officer who represented the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI) at RUC HQ Knock, known as DCI Rep Knock. He was mainly concerned with processing applications for warrants to install technical surveillance and eavesdropping equipment requested by SB, for which the permission of the SOSNI was required. DCI Rep Knock agreed that warrantry work ‘is the seeking of lawful authority for the undertaking … of intelligence-gathering by means which would otherwise be unlawful’. It was also the responsibility of this individual to distribute NIIRs to the RUC, after they had been produced by the AsGp of the Security Service.

5.59 Contact between SB and the Army normally took place primarily at regional level, so the Desk Officers at HQ had little contact with MOD personnel.

5.60 As far as the NIPS was concerned, contact between SB and the NIPS was at HQ level, between E3 and the PIU. There was also contact at regional level, and E3 sent a representative to the meetings of the PLG which discussed the MIARs which were prepared from prison intelligence.

5.61 A further link between SB and the NIPS was provided by the Prison Intelligence Liaison Officer (PILO), who was a Detective Constable attached initially to HMP Maze and then, when HMP Maze was closed in 2000, to HMP Maghaberry. He was known to the Inquiry as Witness FA. He had an office in the neighbouring Army compound outside HMP Maze, and his task was to obtain any intelligence which emanated from the prison, whether concerned with prisoners or visitors, which was likely to be of interest to SB. Non-urgent intelligence was written onto an SB50 and hand-delivered to the Divisional RUC office at Lisburn, where it would eventually be loaded onto the computer database. Urgent information was passed to Lisburn by telephone. Witness FA believed that he was always the conduit for intelligence coming in and out of HMP Maze, and it was very unlikely that any intelligence bypassed him. The fact of the PILO’s location in the Army compound was useful in that it allowed a ready interchange of intelligence between SB and the Army, in particular the Royal Military Police who manned the watchtower next to the visitors’ reception area.

Embedded Security Service Officers

5.62 Following the Warner Report a significant change took place which improved the ability of SB to analyse intelligence. Trained analysts were seconded from the Security Service to the desks at SB Headquarters, in particular to help with the preparation of IMGIRs. This meant that the strategic dimension of intelligence was more adequately treated than had been the case previously, when only fairly rudimentary analysis had been carried out by SB’s own personnel, none of whom had received specific training in the analysis of intelligence. The change also meant that the Security Service and the MOD received more of SB’s tactical intelligence.

The Regions

5.63 The importance of the Regions has already been emphasised and this part of the Chapter explains the structure of each Region, under an RHSB, assisted by a Deputy (DRHSB). It is noteworthy that the RHSB in Belfast Region in 1997, Witness ZBQ, had transferred from RUC Uniform Branch in 1996, and had never served previously in SB.

5.64 Under the DRHSB came the two main component parts of the Region: the TCG and the Support Unit, which in turn consisted of the Source Unit and the Project Unit. Each of these will be briefly described. Under them came the Divisional structure of each region.

5.65 There was a daily morning meeting chaired either by the RHSB or by his deputy at which the intelligence for the previous 24 hours was discussed and agreement was reached on what action needed to be taken. This meeting was also attended by the Divisional Superintendents, a representative from the TCG and representatives from the Support Unit’s Source Unit and Project Unit. This meeting was an opportunity for the sharing of information, and for decisions to be taken by the RHSB or his deputy in conjunction with the Head of the appropriate Division.

The Tasking and Co-ordinating Group

5.66 The main function of the TCG was to coordinate all security force operations within the Region, involving both long-term intelligence gathering operations (including pattern of life operations), and live action operations which might arise on a day-to-day basis. A live action operation would be mounted in response to specific intelligence which suggested, for example, that a particular act of terrorism was being planned. The decision to undertake an operation involved weighing up priorities and deciding how best to use the available resources. It might be necessary to postpone some of the long-term work if the need for live action operations necessitated using all available resources. Work on the long-term project might then be resumed later when the pressures were fewer.

5.67 Decisions about reactive operations would normally be taken at the regular daily morning meeting, but could be started at any time if the degree of urgency required an immediate response. Each operation would be in the hands of a case officer, with information shared with E4 and the HMSU. A suitable team for the operation would be selected, and approval sought from the Regional ACC and the HSB. The Regional ACC retained overall responsibility for the duration of the operation, and the HSB would brief the Chief Constable as necessary. Once an operation was approved, it was left to the TCG to run it. If the Army was involved in a TCG operation, a military liaison officer would be part of the team in the operations room. The TCG used both surveillance teams supplied by E4, and uniform support from the HMSU.

5.68 A record of each operation was kept on a file, with the records generated by the TCG in running an operation known as logs. Details were also entered on the PRISM computer system, but until mid-1998 hard copy records were also kept. An instruction was issued in June 1998 that records should be kept by the TCG, either in written form or on computer, for one year, or longer if a court case was pending.

Dedicated Army Units

5.69 These teams were much smaller than police teams. The Army team leader would come into the TCG each morning for the morning briefing. The TCG would provide the team with a target, but it then became a matter for the Army unit as to how surveillance was carried out. Police teams worked separately from the Army units, although tasks could be handed from one to the other. The dedicated Army units were never privy to SB intelligence, and most of the information they gathered was of a routine nature.

The Support Unit

5.70 The Support Unit consisted of two departments: the Source Unit, which dealt with human intelligence; and the Project Unit, which dealt with intelligence obtained by technical means.

5.71 The work of the Source Unit involved mainly the debriefing of SB Agent Handlers. This led to the creation of a debrief document, probably several pages long, made up of a narrative of the facts reported by the agent, together with appropriate comments and explanations added by the handler. Source protection was of paramount importance, but it was also vital that the right customers received the intelligence. The debrief would then be typed onto the PRISM intelligence database. In 1997, the number of debriefs handled each day varied considerably: as few as half a dozen could be received but the number might be much higher. If the information contained a threat to life, an action sheet would be prepared by the Source Unit. The handwritten debriefs were retained for as long as the agent was active.

5.72 The dissemination of intelligence ensured that, in theory, everyone who needed to know the intelligence received it; this included the TCG, the Divisions, and the RHSB. If wider dissemination was deemed to be necessary, for example to another Region, an SB50 would be produced, which was a sanitised version of the original debrief, and would eventually find its way onto the MACER/CAISTER intelligence database.

5.73 The Project Unit processed information obtained by technical means. It also had the capacity to run sources, and at times Project Unit staff acted as the secretariat for the RHSB. Decisions as to who should be targeted for technical attack were made at Divisional level. An intelligence case would be put together, and would be submitted to E3 and to the Security Service DCI, who would be asked to provide the necessary warrant for the installation of the technical device.

5.74 The product of eavesdropping was fed to a listening post, and the product was transcribed in the Project Unit. It was then kept and disseminated in hard copy form.

The Divisions

5.75 Each SB Region was sub-divided into Divisions. In the case of Belfast Region there were four: A (central); B (west); D (north); E (east). Each Division had a modest management structure under a detective superintendent, reporting to the DRHSB. B Division included HMP Maze. The core task of the Division was the collection of information from human sources. The recruitment of the sources themselves was authorised by the RHSB and the Divisional Superintendents. Details of those recruited were sent to the HSB or DHSB, and lists of all sources operating within the Belfast Region were securely maintained under their authority.

5.76 In the period between 1996 and 1998 a distinction was made between sources who were formally registered or recruited, and those who were regarded as casual contacts. Registered sources were given a code name and reference number and received regular payment; this did not apply to casual contacts. As soon as the recruitment process began, the candidate would be allocated a reference number; if the recruitment was for any reason unsuccessful (and each candidate had to be interviewed at least three times before registration), the number would simply be cancelled. The only instance in which an individual might have had two reference numbers would have been if he had been recruited, then stood down, and then recruited once more. Such an interruption would have been recorded in the individual’s personal file. There was an annual review of each source, conducted by the Source Unit, to which SB officers from the Division contributed. There was also an ongoing rolling assessment programme, and the services of an unproductive source could be terminated at any time.

5.77 The source handlers within the Division were normally detective constables or detective sergeants, and each source had a minimum of two handlers. The briefing of the sources was in accordance with the intelligence requirements which were fixed by the IRC, fed down to the Source Unit from the RHSB, and then passed on to the handlers in the Division. A record of the tasking of handlers was normally kept and the source product filed, and before a handler met a source, he would check the files for the latest tasking requirement. From time to time the TCG could task handlers in relation to an ongoing operation, for example with the object of identifying a hitherto unidentified person. After a handler had met a source, the handler would be debriefed in the Division by the case officer unless the matter was entirely routine. In case of urgency, intelligence could be passed verbally to the TCG. It was the task of the Detective Inspector within the Division to look at the previous day’s intelligence, ascertain the need for any re-tasking of sources, and brief the source handlers accordingly. The Inspector would then oversee whatever meetings were to be conducted on that day and review the product which came back from those meetings. If any action was required it would be decided at the morning meeting chaired by the RHSB.

Threats

5.78 Under RUC Force Order 60/91 a threat to life was to be communicated to the individual concerned. Former ACC Kinkaid’s report of 9 October 2007 to the Inquiry points this out:‘There were so many threats to be processed in 1997 that the procedures used were well known to all officers. Threats existed against security force members from paramilitaries, against paramilitaries from other paramilitaries (usually of a sectarian nature) and even within paramilitaries when feuds developed. Police officers had to warn members of paramilitary organisations they were under threat, including members of organisations who were planning attacks against the very police force who was passing the message.’

5.79 The Force Order set out in great detail the procedure in relation to the intimation of threat information in the case of different potential victims, politicians, prison officers and other individuals. In the case of prisoners, the case with which this Inquiry is concerned, paragraph 2(7) of the Force Order applied. Witness FG told the Inquiry that paragraph 2(4) also applied. There would be notification to the NIPS HQ, but ultimately it was a matter for the Division, who would deal with the threat in terms of direct contact with the governor of the prison concerned. The information would probably have been passed also to the relevant RSU, where an action sheet would have been prepared. The information on the action sheet would have been delivered either by the PILO or by local uniform police from the sub-division concerned, which in the case of HMP Maze was Lisburn. It would have been unusual for the Desk Officer to have contacted the prison directly, although he might well have passed the information on to the PIU.

5.80 Witness FA, PILO at HMP Maze, stated that he had never personally delivered threats to prisoners. The threat would have been passed by him to Prison Security and they would have warned the individual. Superintendent Stanley Clements, the Sub-Divisional Commander for Lisburn, had no recollection of any threats being passed through his office to be delivered to any prisoner. Such threats if they existed would be channelled through the SB Liaison Officer directly to the governor or his deputy who would deal with the threat. To comply with the Force Order would necessitate the production of the prisoner to the police. In order for the police to speak to the prisoner the authority of the governor was required, and within HMP Maze authority from the block Officer Commanding (OC) was also required. It was still at the discretion of the prisoner whether he spoke to the police. Superintendent Clements had no recollection of any request to deliver information regarding a threat to Billy Wright while he was in either HMP Maghaberry or HMP Maze. Threats to prisoners received by SB should normally have gone through the relevant Regional SB and resulted in the generation of an action sheet from the Source Unit in the Region, following which the information would be relayed to the prison.

Action Sheet

5.81 In relation to any threat, an action sheet would be created, and this would be done regardless of the threat assessment. It was an absolute obligation on the RUC to inform threatened individuals, unless there had been a conscious decision that the threat should not be passed on. It was a requirement on the part of the Regions, or stations within the Region, to keep a threats book. In relation to HMP Maze, the threats book would have been kept at Lisburn sub-division.

Monitoring Threats Received by the Regions

5.82 If intelligence had gone to the Regions in the first instance, it was the responsibility of the Desks at HQ to ensure that appropriate action had been taken. If SB HQ received information from the Regions about a threat to prison officers, it would have been discussed at the morning meeting. If the threat was immediate, by the time of the morning meeting some action would already have been taken in respect of that intelligence. This would not have been recorded but the fact that action was taken would have been recorded on the intelligence document that contained the details of the threat.

Security Service

5.83 If a threat was received by the Security Service, as in the case of the 21 April 1997 threat to the life of Billy Wright, it would be communicated to SB HQ. The Desk concerned would receive the information verbally from the Service by a telephone call, and the originator of the message and the recipient would agree a form of words to be used. The information would be recorded on a message pad, and a copy would be retained at the Desk. If the threat information was urgent, SB HQ would generate a debrief immediately and an action sheet. The action sheet would be passed to the appropriate sub-division, and the debrief would go onto the PRISM intelligence database and in due course onto the CAISTER/MACER intelligence database. If the threat was non-urgent, it would come from the Security Service in the form of a NIIR or a Source Report, and be processed thereafter. E3 prepared threat assessments, based on information such as how many previous similar threats had been received against a particular individual, and whether there was corroborative reporting.

5.84 A decision open to SB in response to a threat was the possibility of disruption, which could involve a number of possible actions, such as placing a uniform police patrol in the vicinity of the target; or moving a threatened individual or family (as sometimes happened overnight); or carrying out a search of a suspect property. The TCG controlled both the surveillance team (E4A) and the Specialist Firearms Team (part of the HMSU), either or both of which might have been involved in an operation to prevent a specific threat from being carried out.

5.85 Former ACC Kinkaid said,‘Clearly in the case of Billy Wright the existence of a threat to him in the prison could have been dealt with by a combination of warning and disruptions, i.e. moving him.’None of those who gave evidence to the Inquiry on behalf of the PSNI, including ACC Mr Alistair Finlay and former ACC Kinkaid, has been able to explain why the specific 21 April 1997 threat to the life of Billy Wright, received by SB from the Security Service on 24 April, was not passed to Billy Wright or to the NIPS. This is particularly surprising, since the Inquiry has heard evidence of at least eight occasions between 1991 and 1996 when the RUC did pass on threats to Billy Wright (see Chapter 4).

Submissions by the Police Service of Northern Ireland

5.86 In view of the sensitivity of the April threat, it was to be expected that Counsel for the PSNI would devote some time in his closing submissions to the matter of threats and how they were handled. He raised a number of questions about what properly constituted a threat, whether new information added to what was already known, whether any particular timeframe or location was included in the intelligence, what action could be taken in the light of that information, and the risks involved in taking action. He acknowledged the moral imperative to act on a threat, but emphasised the need to consider and assess the intelligence. The case made by Counsel for the PSNI in closing submissions is dealt with in greater detail in Chapter 15.

Structure and Background

Special Branch Participation in High-level Meetings

5.87 Senior SB officers attended a number of coordinating meetings. Four of those are referred to below.
(a) The Security Policy Meeting (SPM)

5.88 This was the most important meeting, attended by the SOSNI, the Chief Constable, the General Officer Commanding, the DCI and the PS. A brief from this meeting was prepared for the Chief Constable by the Detective Chief Inspector in charge of E3A, the Head of the E3 Desks, and would have covered the work of all the Desks. This was the means by which SB had input at the highest possible level in terms of the governance of Northern Ireland.
(b) The Province Executive Committee (PEC)

5.89 The HSB, or in his absence the DHSB, would attend these meetings for which a synopsis of intelligence would have been prepared for the HSB/DHSB. The DCI presented the political perspective on behalf of his customers in Whitehall and in Stormont. This provided both the RUC Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) Operations and the Commander Land Forces with a better understanding of the political imperatives which were driving government policy at the time. The minutes of this meeting were classified ‘secret’ and were kept either in SB HQ or in the Chief Constable’s Office.

(c) The Intelligence Review Committee

5.90 This meeting took place weekly, chaired by the DCI. It would be attended by the Head of the AsGp (HAG) and one or two of his subordinates, the Assistant Chief of Staff G2/G3 representing the Army, and the HSB or the Head of E3/IMG. This meeting dealt with strategic intelligence requirements and priorities, reviewing priorities on a monthly basis. The objective of the IRC was to ensure that middle-ranking officers in all three of the organisations concerned (the RUC, the Security Service and the Army) understood the impact of strategic intelligence requirements, and were working in a harmonious and coordinated way.

(d) Meetings with Chief Constable and Regional Assistant Chief Constables

5.91 The HSB had formal morning meetings with the Chief Constable, having spoken previously with his Deputy before the meeting. He also had morning meetings with the Regional Assistant Chief Constables, the Deputy Chief Constable (DCC), a representative from C Branch and Head of Operations Branch. Special Branch and the Criminal Investigation Department.

5.92 Mention has already been made of the mystery surrounding the failure of SB to take appropriate action in response to the threat to the life of Billy Wright which they received from the Security Service in April 1997. Since no explanation has been forthcoming for this failure, it can only be a matter of speculation. But it raises the question in principle of the willingness of SB to communicate adequately, a weakness which is also evident in the relationship between SB and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). It would be natural to assume that these two arms of the RUC would have wished to work in the closest and most constructive partnership, but this appears not to have been the case in 1997.

5.93 This was made particularly clear to the Inquiry in the evidence which it heard about the investigation into the murder of Billy Wright, conducted by Detective Superintendent John Short of West Belfast CID and Detective Chief Inspector Noel Nicholl based at Lisburn CID. The matter of the investigation is dealt with more fully in Chapter 14 of this Report, but it is mentioned briefly here in view of its relevance to the structure and working of SB. In his evidence to the Inquiry Mr Short was asked whether he had approached SB to find out what relevant information they had which would be helpful in his investigation of the murder. His answers were not entirely clear; he did claim that a SB officer was attached to the murder inquiry team but he could remember nothing that SB had contributed. Mr Nicholl was more forthcoming and acknowledged to Counsel for the Wright family that if there was any intelligence about the murder before it took place, that intelligence would have been known to SB; that a SB officer sat in on the murder inquiry team, but that no intelligence was forthcoming. He expressed surprise that surveillance had taken place and intelligence been received, and yet nothing had been shared with the CID investigating officers. The Inquiry has seen clear evidence that relevant intelligence was available to SB.

5.94 It is important always to bear in mind the security constraints which attached to any sensitive intelligence in Northern Ireland in 1997, and the overwhelming predominance of the ‘need to know’ principle, often interpreted in its most restrictive form. But it remains the Panel’s impression that communication, even when highly desirable and even necessary for the carrying out of police work, was not always as effective as it should have been.
The Processing of Intelligence by Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch

5.95 Mr Chris Albiston, Head of the IMG in 1997, in his witness statement for the Inquiry, set out the Intelligence Cycle as it should in theory work.

5.96 First, the intelligence requirements needed to be established, and this was the task of the IRC (see 5.90).

5.97 Much intelligence also flowed naturally from very many sources and agents who were supplying it, and they did not by any means always work in accordance with a strategic plan. The flow of intelligence from a source was initially to the Agent Handler, who received the raw intelligence in debriefing the agent, discussed it with a case officer (or controller, the Agent Handler’s superior) at divisional level, and determined whether it needed to be disseminated with any degree of urgency. The intelligence, having been collected, was then subject to evaluation of the reliability of the source, and the likely accuracy of the information as a result of which a grading was applied. So, for example, B2 meant that the intelligence was from a usually reliable source, and had a high degree of credibility, and this particular grading is commonly found on SB intelligence documents from known sources.

5.98 Following this evaluation, the intelligence debrief was handwritten by the Agent Handler and submitted to the Source Unit at SB Regional HQ. The Handling Team then created a manuscript form SB50 (subsequently a computerised SIR), and passed it to typists who loaded it onto the CAISTER/MACER database. The Handling Team then passed a local action sheet to the CID. Meanwhile, the Source Unit put the intelligence onto the PRISM system, with care being taken to ensure that the PRISM document corresponded accurately with a handwritten debrief. Intelligence was then discussed with the RHSB at the morning meeting, and shared, as appropriate, with other Regions.

5.99 If other agencies were to have access to the intelligence, it would be disseminated from SB HQ, from the CAISTER/MACER database, and sanitised to varying degrees according to the ‘need to know’ principle, and with particular concern for source protection. If an operation was ongoing, then often the intelligence would not be shared with SB HQ. If new intelligence required a response in terms of operational action, that would be undertaken by the TCG. The PSNI in their final submission pointed out that RSUs had the opportunity to share intelligence with E3 and other divisions within the SB HQ structure. The decision upon the materials selected for sharing and the destination of such information was made at regional level.

5.100 One aspect of the processing of intelligence which left much to be desired was analysis. It was a perception that there was inadequate analysis of intelligence which was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Warner Report of 1996. As Mr Albiston pointed out, assessment and analysis are not the same thing, although the terms were frequently used as synonyms. He described analysis as ‘an independent art or science’, and it requires specific and specialised training. The Embedded Security Service Officers (ESSOs) at SB HQ (see 5.62) began to fill this gap in the capability of SB from 1997 onwards, but until that time analysis of a kind was carried out in the Regions and within the sub-divisional offices. The detective sergeant or inspector would try to identify a trend in the intelligence coming in, and to see whether it needed to be shared with another Region, but there were no formalised procedures. The Source Unit provided a weekly summary of intelligence, and drew such conclusions from it as it could. The Warner Report envisaged the provision of ESSOs also at SB Regional level, but this recommendation was not implemented.

5.101 Witness ZBQ (who served as RHSB) acknowledged that the regular morning meeting provided an essential part of the processing of intelligence, and offered some opportunity for informal analysis. It was suggested to him that if some aspect of intelligence was not picked up, or its significance not recognised, at the morning meeting, it might have been lost from sight; but he believed that the divisional superintendents concerned with it would have retained an awareness of it. He agreed that the memories of individuals played a large part in the handling of intelligence, which was by current standards a potential source of weakness. He also recalled the Alpass Report of 2000, which contained recommendations for improving the process of handling intelligence (see 5.112). The burden on senior managers had become very heavy by 1997, with 30–40 debriefs in a day, and although efforts were made to identify trends and draw together different strands of intelligence, it was not a system without shortcomings. Witness ZBH also acknowledged the point made by Alpass that full value was not always extracted from intelligence by SB because it was insufficiently studied and analysed.

5.102 Witness FG told the Inquiry that he was the main analyst at SB HQ for the dissident republican groups. He made use of information from CAISTER/MACER, and from such PRISM intelligence as the regions had provided to HQ. He created target lists of key individuals in the dissident republican world, identified their particular role (e.g. quartermaster), and worked out who was likely to be involved in military action or who might be storing weapons. This information was for the benefit of SB’s own operations and for its external customers, but most of it was tactical and the need was for more strategic intelligence, for which the politicians were crying out. They needed to know what the trends were, what was going on behind the scenes, from reliable sources rather than from paramilitary propaganda. After the ceasefires in 1994 and the renewed PIRA ceasefire in 1997, there was a strategic role for the IMG in monitoring the degree of compliance, and assessing the significance of the many breaches of the ceasefire which took place.

5.103 The reliability of sources varied greatly, and there were sometimes disagreements between the trust placed in an agent by the Agent Handler and the judgement of the SB Desk Officer. This was not unexpected, since Agent Handlers tended to be protective of their sources, but Desk Officers had a broader view from a variety of sources. Much of the intelligence which came in was in fact spurious, and there were some sources who became known as ‘intelligence nuisances’. Opinions about a particular source might well vary from one agency to another, and it was not unknown for a source to produce 99 per cent nonsense and one per cent good intelligence. Good Handlers and good Desk Officers needed to work together to recognise such sources and to decide whether to continue to pay them. The re-tasking of an agent was sometimes necessary, in which case a list of questions would be decided on, and put on the relevant source file for the handler to pick up before the next meeting with the source.

5.104 Some intelligence was so sensitive that the handler would immediately recognise that it required special treatment. The superintendent might decide that it should be the subject of a secret report, in which case the normal debrief process through the Source Unit would not be appropriate, and a secret report would be sent directly to the HSB with the RHSB informed. The Inquiry heard somewhat conflicting evidence about how frequently such extremely sensitive information would have to receive this special treatment, but it seems clear that there were very few such occasions. The PSNI in their final submission rejected the suggestion that handlers were in a position to sift and sort what they wanted to refer to the Source Unit, and that the way in which incoming information from sources was summarised had the potential to exclude data. This appeared to the Inquiry to be a particularly defensive statement, since the improper summarising of information from sources does not appear to have been suggested by those who gave evidence to the Inquiry.

5.105 The PSNI system did not provide to the Inquiry either documentary or electronic manuals about the regulation of the system. The PSNI defended this upon the grounds that it always had to be mindful of the great risk at which sources were operating, and it was necessary to protect them at all costs. The Home Office guidelines for dealing with ordinary crime sources were, it was said, not applicable to the particular circumstances in which SB and their agents were required to operate. PSNI drew attention to the reference made by Lord Stevens to their attempts to seek assistance from government with a view to obtaining further guidance and the establishment of guidelines which were appropriate to the special circumstances of Northern Ireland. The PSNI claimed that such further guidance was not forthcoming.

Group Numbers and Data Security Levels

5.106 Access to the PRISM database was restricted by reference to Data Security Levels (DSLs) and Group numbers in a wide range which related to the sensitivity of the information, and to the staff members who could have access to the intelligence. The CAISTER/MACER system, which was the central SB database for intelligence which was to be shared with other agencies, including the Army, used a similar protection set of DSLs, but in a different numerical range.

Dissemination of Criminal Intelligence

5.107 In 1997 criminal intelligence was recorded on a database known as PACIFIC, which in 1998 became the Integrated Criminal Information System (ICIS). It was not clear to the Inquiry whether SB had direct access to PACIFIC in 1997, although subsequently they did have access to ICIS. Witness DB (who led the Support Unit in Belfast Region SB) explained that SB could obtain information stored on the CID database either by asking the CID intelligence officer for the relevant division, or by interrogating the CID intelligence cell. There were also SB officers attached to the CID, through whom an enquiry could be directed. It was sometimes necessary to conceal the identity of the individual about whom an enquiry was being made, and in this case the approach was through the SB officers, or the particular enquiry could be combined with a number of others in order not to draw attention to the specific individual. Witness DB agreed that there was sometimes a reluctance on the part of SB to search the CID database, because there was a risk that the identity of a source might be revealed, and for this reason some SB officers did not use the system.

5.108 The CID sometimes volunteered information to SB about people who had access to weapons, and this intelligence entered the PRISM system in the same way as any other, in relation to its reliability, sensitivity and possible dissemination. If the information was from a particular source known to SB, that information would go on the source file, and individual handlers would then know that it was on the system.

5.109 SB also received from the CID copy debriefs and other documentation which related to subversive paramilitary activity, as opposed to straightforward criminality. It was not always obvious that there were national security implications in such intelligence, but SB expected to receive any criminal intelligence relating to weapons. If such information was passed to one particular RSU, it was also shared with the other Regions.

Intelligence Records Made and Held by Special Branch in 1997

Special Branch Headquarters

5.110 In the period 1996–98 SB held a huge number of paper files. The Inquiry received information from the PSNI which confirmed that before the introduction of computerisation all RUC intelligence was held on paper files, and that these files were maintained until 1998. Thereafter they were phased out as SB intelligence records were computerised. The PRISM (later superseded by CHISM) and CAISTER (later renamed MACER) databases contained data up to and including the government protection marking of ‘Secret’. So long as paper records were still in use centrally in the registry, not all the information was entered onto the PRISM database. Witness FG told the Inquiry that material received in 1997 would have been registered and stored electronically, including the oral debrief of a source and the SIR that was subsequently produced. Historical data, however, was held in paper form. He confirmed that these paper files continued in use, and would still be used today, as some of the intelligence would still be relevant to ongoing inquiries and cases.

5.111 Witness DB recalled that the following files were held centrally:• Agent Handler files;• files on all terrorist organisations;• correspondence with law enforcement agencies;• subject index files which dealt with buildings and threats to premises; • personal threat files which were paper files.Witness FG confirmed that the desks at SB HQ received technical product from E9 in hard copy format, and regular hard copy summaries from all covert surveillance operations in Northern Ireland.

5.112 Important information regarding the number of hard copy records held is to be found in the Alpass Report (John Alpass was Coordinator for Security and Intelligence with the UK Government Joint Intelligence Committee from 1996 to 1998), commissioned by the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, in October 1999, and published in April 2000. It was undertaken by Alpass under the title The Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch Information Handling Procedures: An Independent Scrutiny, and the Terms of Reference included the task of scrutinising arrangements, practices and policies within SB for the handling and storage of secret intelligence, and the retention and destruction of records. Although the Alpass Report post-dates the period with which the Inquiry is specifically concerned, it is a valuable record of what still existed in 2000 in terms of hard copy records. Such records fell into two broad categories:• live files, in paper form, held in the KARDEX storage/retrieval system; and• closed and dormant files, stored either in paper form or on microfilm or microfiche.Alpass noted, with some concern, that documents marked ‘Top Secret’ were not stored in the central store, but were held by individual SB officers.

5.113 Alpass noted that by 1999 there were acute problems associated with storage, above all the lack of space. The KARDEX system was full, and the retrieval of archived files, which was a daily occurrence, was far from easy, with the staff working in extremely difficult conditions. He also noted that the microfilm records were in poor condition, as the work had not been carried out to the highest standards, and the process of conversion to microfilm or microfiche had ceased in 1992 because of the technical problems of the legibility and longevity of these records, which risked being irretrievably lost. When the decision was taken in 1992 to stop the microfilming programme, the recommendation was that the ‘paper mountain’ should be retained, but subject to a regular annual review. Alpass also raised the possibility of using a form of optical disk for document storage, but recognised that any computer system was vulnerable to the process of obsolescence.

5.114 There was discussion in the Alpass Report of how sensitive and historically important material could be handed over to the Public Records Office (Northern Ireland) (PRONI), with particular emphasis on the proper identification and preservation of material of historical importance. The Report recommended the appointment of a Records Preservation Manager, and suggested that immediate action should be taken to secure some additional storage space, and to explore suitable forms of computerisation for the long-term preservation of documents, while weeding out some clearly ephemeral material.

5.115 The evidence which the Inquiry has heard from several witnesses, and the clear indication in the Alpass Report of 2000 of the enormous number of hard copy files which were then in existence mean that it is very puzzling that the PSNI has been unable to produce any significant hard copy intelligence records from 1997. Where they are, or if and when they were destroyed, remains a mystery.

Special Branch Regions

5.116 Witness DB told the Inquiry that as far as day-to-day operations in the Regions were concerned, SB was using paper files in the period 1996–98. The forms of hard copy records maintained by the main departments at Regional level were as follows:

The Support Unit

5.117 Personal or source files A personal file was created for each human source, who was given a reference number and a code name. This file contained personal details of each source, including authority for payment, but no intelligence, and no record of individual payments.

5.118 Product files In 1997 SB kept hard copy handwritten debriefs for up to two years, kept in the intelligence product files in the Source Unit. Witness ZBQ, the RHSB in 1997, said that he saw both handwritten and computer debriefs in 1997, as the system began to change.

5.119 Subject files Subject files were kept on each paramilitary group.

5.120 Miscellaneous books The Source Unit kept the telephone message book, the threats book, the intelligence book and code name book and a list of the contact details for each handler.

5.121 Day books and journals Each officer kept a day book, but there was no procedure in place which stipulated what should happen to such books when they were full. Each officer usually kept his day books for a while and then destroyed them as there was no requirement for them to be handed back, and there was no system of accounting for them.

5.122 Briefs and papers These were concerned with threats to public order and with paramilitary trends, and included information which came to SB from uniform branch.

5.123 Secret reports If an Agent Handler believed that intelligence was of outstanding importance or sensitivity he would consult the case officer, and the Superintendent would decide whether it was to be committed to a secret report. If so, it would be taken by hand from the region to SB HQ.

5.124 Intelligence requirements A copy of the intelligence requirements worked out by the IRC was sent to the Regional Support Unit from RHSB, and an appropriate source had then to be identified who could be tasked to fulfil the intelligence requirement.

5.125 Assessments The Source Unit produced weekly and monthly intelligence assessments, circulated within the Region and to SB HQ. Witness DB confirmed that these were in hard copy format.

The Tasking and Co-ordinating Group

5.126 Witness ZCA (who was Detective Chief Inspector in Belfast Region TCG, and who had previously worked as an Agent Handler and controller) told the Inquiry about the procedures of the TCG. Following the Regional morning meeting there was a meeting of everyone on duty in the TCG, at which the officer who had attended the Regional meeting briefed the rest of the staff on what the RHSB wanted done that day or that week. In an ever changing situation, work was normally planned a day at a time, and the briefing was then entered onto PRISM. Witness ZCA was certain that these briefings should still be accessible on PRISM, and because everything was on the computer system, paper records were not retained. Witness ZCA could not recall the identity of the person who would have authorised the destruction of hard copy material, and he could not recall the Alpass Report.

5.127 Once a TCG operation had been agreed upon it was run by the Superintendent of the TCG. An operational order was produced for each target, including the identity of the target, a general assessment and the objectives of the operation, time limits and arrangements for reviewing the operation. These orders were put onto PRISM and the original hard copies were destroyed. A file was opened for each operation and the RHSB expected that the record of any discussion between himself and the Superintendent about the operation would be on that file.

5.128 Witness FG explained that every operation had a running log, which was a summary of the individual daily entries, and which enabled the reader to refer back to the detailed information in the daily log. Each surveillance team completed a handwritten log which was typed up and sent to the TCG and thence to E4 at SB HQ, where the logs from the previous 24 hours were collated and summarised for the IMG.

5.129 The failure of the PSNI to produce TCG logs has presented the Inquiry with a particular problem in relation to one specific operation known as Operation JAW. This was a surveillance exercise against the INLA, mounted by SB Belfast Region TCG, starting on 13 June 1996. It was a lifestyle operation, designed to build up a picture of an organisation and its members. From May 1997 there are numerous references to this directed surveillance on PRISM but no running log has been made available to the Inquiry. The PSNI’s response to the Inquiry’s Position Paper of January 2008 claims that there was no running log kept of this operation, but this claim is contrary to the evidence of serving officers at the time. Witness ZCA spoke of being able to access what he described as a ‘progress log’ in 1997. Witness ZBS, who was DHSB, could think of no reason why the Inquiry was not provided with a copy of the entire log for Operation JAW, and Witness FG, quoted previously, who was the Detective Inspector in E3A from 1995 until November 1997, was adamant that the TCG kept a ‘running log’ on Operation JAW. He recalled being aware of the Operation by virtue of the daily summaries which he saw.

5.130 Witness ZCH, who became the Detective Chief Inspector in the Belfast TCG in June 1998, told the Inquiry that the records that were available to be put onto PRISM from 1996 included E4 logs and military surveillance unit logs. The implication was that these logs would be maintained, at least as long as the Operation was in progress. Operation JAW was actively pursued at least until 1999, although it was finally wound up in 2003. The Inquiry also heard from Witness ZCH about directions which he issued to the TCG when he arrived in June 1998, to the effect that records must be kept, either in hard copy or on computer, relating to potential targets, current and past operations, recovery of munitions etc. in the TCG for one year, or longer if a court case was pending. This instruction appears not to relate to the running log of an operation such as JAW.

5.131 Operation JAW is dealt with fully in Chapter 6, in relation to document recovery, and in Chapter 15, but the matter is raised at this point because it relates specifically to the way in which the TCG operated, and maintained its records. The findings of the Inquiry are strikingly similar to those of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, and to the conclusions reached by Lord Stevens in the course of his lengthy enquiries. Both these matters are referred to later in this Chapter.

UNIPLEX

5.132 This was a personal folder within PRISM which enabled an individual officer to create his own Word documents and to share information. Anyone with permission to access the system could use it, although according to Witness DB it was not always known as UNIPLEX, but by some officers simply as the document store. This is referred to further in Chapter 6.

Review, Retention and Destruction of SB Records

5.133 Reference has already been made to the Alpass Report insofar as it sheds light on the existence of vast numbers of documents in the years 1999–2000. Alpass noted that the SB had no formal policy for the retention, review or destruction of its records. There had been fairly extensive destruction of records locally before 1970, but thereafter files were forwarded to the new Central Registry at SB HQ. The RUC Code laid down that all classified documentary material should be subject to regular review, and retained no longer than necessary, but that all official documents which needed to be preserved indefinitely should be transferred to PRONI after 20 years. Paragraph 128 of the Code provided advice on reviewing files and the periods for which they should be retained, and importantly it stated that ‘No file will be destroyed until all possible judicial action relating to the subject matter has terminated’. SB did not in fact pass any material to PRONI. Alpass examined the policies and practices of other organisations in the review, retention and destruction of documents, and advocated a new policy for SB, subject to the approval of the SOSNI. Older records should be regularly reviewed and destroyed if they did not come into any category which required their retention. Such categories were:• materials still needed for business reasons, such as criminal investigation, or SB’s own ongoing intelligence work;• material which needed to be preserved in perpetuity because of its historical importance.Subject to security considerations, some of this latter material should be releasable, perhaps in redacted form, into the public domain after a very long interval. A formal agreement should be sought with PRONI over what material fell into the second category, and over where and in what form it should be stored. Alpass’s preference was for paper records to be preserved in their original form.

5.134 The Inquiry heard some unclear and uncertain evidence about SB practice in the years 1996–98. Witness DG, who was RHSB in Belfast Region, spoke of the pressure at Regional level on accommodation for records, and said that policy in that context was that documentation in relation to sources who were no longer being handled should be destroyed within three or five years; he could not remember which, but in response to questioning he made it clear that he was referring to three or five years after a source ceased to be active. He acknowledged that this was not departmental policy, but simply local practice. He recalled that during the latter part of his time, when he was HSB and before he retired in 2002, there was work on the policy for the retention and destruction of documents right across SB, but he could not be precise as to what point that process had reached when he retired.

5.135 Witness ZCH, who appears not to have been in post in 1997, but became Detective Chief Inspector in Belfast TCG in June 1998, was questioned closely on precisely what material was retained. He claimed that all ‘intelligence material’ was retained indefinitely, and that the material which he ordered to be destroyed was not intelligence. He maintained that the intelligence material was contained in debriefs and surveillance logs which were (and by implication should still be) on the PRISM system, although he did not claim that the computer records held as much detailed information as would have been in the original paper documents. When challenged by Counsel for the Wright family with the suggestion that documents might have been destroyed in order to protect human sources, Witness ZCH denied that this was the case.

5.136 Similarly unclear evidence was offered by Witness ZBV, who was in charge of E9 at SB HQ in 1997, known post-Warner as Central Desk. He left in 2004, and thought that the paper files ‘might all have been destroyed’ by that time. He did underline a problem to which other witnesses also referred, which was the enormous volume of paperwork generated by the system, with material being produced and printed every day. He described how in his time material was periodically incinerated: ‘There were Home Office guidelines for the destruction of documents. I think there was a period of time after which documents had to be destroyed. I think the relevant period was one year.’ The uncertain tone of the statement does not inspire confidence that the policy and practice were clear and methodical. It was put to Witness ZBV that the Inquiry had not been provided with any authoritative destruction policy operated by SB, but that the draft policy which it had seen, setting out practice for the new, post-Patten PSNI in 2002 (and which appears to be derived from the Alpass recommendations), indicates that intelligence material was to be retained indefinitely. Witness ZBV told the Inquiry that he was not aware of such a policy.

5.137 Witness ZBV said that on one occasion he went to look for paper files, but when he got there, the cupboard was empty. He told the Inquiry that these were paper files relating to previous operations, and that they would have gone back as far as 1991 and possibly even before that. He told the Inquiry that he was not surprised to find that the documents had been destroyed. He was then asked why he went to look for the paper files, and told the Inquiry that he could not now recollect, but that he might simply have thought, ‘I seem to remember something from 1997 on an operation. I’ll just go and check.’ When he went to check, the documents were not there. He told the Inquiry that he would have expected them to have been kept. He was then asked whether he raised the question of their retention with anyone, and said that on that occasion he thought he had been told that in the case of operations which had been dead since 1991, and in regard to which the intelligence was no longer required, the documents would have been destroyed.

5.138 Witness DB, who became Detective Chief Inspector in charge of Belfast RSU in September 1997, repeatedly stressed the importance of context when looking at intelligence. In trying to analyse and assess intelligence and attribute significance to it, context was vital. He saw his role, and that of other SB witnesses, in appearing before the Inquiry as the provision of that contextual understanding of intelligence. He did acknowledge that the memory of witnesses 12 years after the event would be less than perfect, but did not agree that the absence of any written records made it difficult for the Inquiry to obtain a proper understanding of the true position in 1997, because there was no clear and unambiguous documentation against which to consider individual memory and interpretation.

5.139 During the course of the Inquiry, reference was made to the statement by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on her investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Raymond McCord Junior and related matters. This investigation has relevance to the Inquiry’s work in relation to the record-keeping of SB, since the Ombudsman’s experience reflects the same difficulties which the Inquiry experienced. Her report was published in January 2007, but it relates to a number of murders which took place between 1989 and 2000, and involved questioning SB officers, some of whom also gave evidence to the Billy Wright Inquiry. The Ombudsman had on many occasions to wait a long time for replies to her questions, and she noted the significant obstacle to her work caused by the‘… generally poor standard of record-keeping within Special Branch over many years, and the failure to document, or to document properly, matters including key pieces of intelligence in relation to murders. As a consequence, in part, of the lack of information storage facilities, information retrieval was on occasion very difficult.’ ‘Material which was retained was on occasions recorded in a selective manner which did not reflect the information given to police. Important documentation which should have been retained, was unavailable to the Police Ombudsman’s investigators. The Tasking and Co-ordinating Groups (which were the most senior decision making groups responsible for Special Branch operations) routinely destroyed all material relating to their decision-making processes.’

5.140 Reference was also made in the course of oral hearings to the work of Lord Stevens (formerly Sir John Stevens) and his team in their protracted investigation into alleged irregularities on the part of the Army and the RUC from 1989 to 2003. The third Stevens Report, of April 2003, was quoted in the course of oral hearings by Counsel for the Wright family in terms remarkably similar to those used by the Ombudsman:‘The failure to keep records or the existence of contradictory accounts can often be perceived as evidence of concealment or malpractice. It limits the opportunity to rebut serious allegations. The absence of accountability allows the acts or omissions of individuals to go undetected. Withholding of information impedes the prevention of crime and the arrest of suspects … The co ordination, dissemination and sharing of intelligence were poor.’The Stevens Report’s reference to the failure to keep records further substantiates the experience of the Billy Wright Inquiry in attempting to locate documentation which would have allowed a proper and thorough exploration of the issues which the Inquiry was set up to investigate.

5.141 Former ACC Sam Kinkaid, who was described by ACC Alistair Finlay as a ‘robust challenger to a culture which had existed previously’, explained to the Inquiry what he meant by the use of the phrase ‘plausible deniability’. It was, he said, a practice or culture that existed in an organisation where the members did not keep records, so there was no audit trail. Nothing could be traced back, so that if they were challenged they denied it, and that denial, being based on no documentation, would become ‘plausible deniability’. The system in SB was such, he said, ‘that it didn’t give proper audit trails and proper dissemination, and at times it would appear that it allowed people at a later date to have amnesia, in the sense that they couldn’t remember because there was no data on the system’. This admission, from a senior PSNI officer appointed by the Chief Constable to explore the apparent lack of documentation supplied to the Inquiry, is an eloquent indication of the shortcomings inherent in the system.

Conclusion

5.142 In summary, there appears to have been no clarity or consistency in the way in which intelligence documents were reviewed, with a view to retention or destruction, and no consistency in practice. The failure of the PSNI to produce hard copy intelligence documents, such as intelligence logs and surveillance registers, despite what Alpass found in 1999–2000, has meant that the Inquiry’s work has been very considerably frustrated, and that the task of tracing a decision-making process, or assessing individual responsibility for action (or lack of it), has been made much more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

RUC SBRUC SB2

 

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