Spying on the border
BY LAURA FRIEL
Is Tony Blair a hostage to the British military or does the British government have its own reasons for holding onto spyposts along the border in South Armagh? This is a question that has been perplexing the minds of the media this week.
``The British Labour Party has never enjoyed a reputation for standing up to the generals and Tony Blair is seen as being nervous of opposing his military advisers,'' writes Maol Muire Tynan of the Sunday Business Post.
``Rumours are widespread that senior British officers might mutiny if the British Prime Minister and his government insist on the dismantling of any of the 14 watch towers in south Armagh.''
But according to her colleague Frank Doherty, the British government may be hiding behind rather than failing to face down the British military. ``The ten forts on mountain peaks in South Armagh are crucial to British Intelligence understanding of what is going on in Ireland,'' he writes.
``Their spying tasks are not confined to republican dissidents but extend to every aspect of government, political and commercial life in the Republic,'' says Doherty.
According to ``a former communications officer'' with the British Ministry of Defence, two of the forts are used as electronic intelligence collection platforms. While the others ``give plausibility to the cover story that the watch towers were only used for visual surveillance of the immediate area along the border.''
The principal collection platform, code named G40 by the British military, is sited on Croslieve Mountain, west of Forkhill, and according to Doherty's source, it can intercept all the public service network carriers radiating from Dublin.
These would include all the main telecommunications highways, telephone calls, fax and data transmissions, e-mails and Internet communications. They also tap into fibre optic cables, to which they have access as they pass through British-controlled territory.
Last year, a Channel Four documentary exposed Britain's monitoring of Irish international telecommunications passing through Britain. Since the ending of the Cold War, Britain's GCHQ has become increasingly involved in industrial espionage, using spying techniques to undermine their commercial competitors.
But a specially built microwave interception tower at Capenhurst, north of Chester, which had been used by Britain's GCHQ at Cheltenham to spy on Ireland became redundant when the Irish switched to satellite links via a station in County Cork. The Cork earth satellite station is monitored by British signals intelligence from a satellite interception station at Bude in Cornwall.
According to Duncan Campbell, a British journalist and expert, the interception towers along the South Armagh border are operated by a signals intelligence regiment of the Royal Corps of Signals based in Lisburn and Gough barracks in Armagh. The information is later examined by GCHQ in Cheltenham.
The broadband data intercepted at the hilltop forts is beamed to Gough Barracks over an encrypted digital link. From there it is sent on a secure digital bearer code named Brinton, to a restricted area known as the Secure Signals Compound in the British army's HQ at Thiepval barracks, Lisburn.
At Thiepval, the data can be accessed using an intelligence computer code named Crucible and artificial intelligence software code named Mannequin. Material can be passed from Thiepval to the RUC HQ in Knock, East Belfast or on to Cheltenham via a secure satellite. The system was set up in 1986, says Campbell, but only reached its full working potential in 1997.