Twenty-nine people died as a result of the 1998 Omagh bomb. Reporter John Ware, who in a 2008 BBC television documentary first disclosed that British telephone intercepts had been withheld from the detectives investigating the bombing, gives his response to the call by the ‘Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’ at the London parliament for a further investigation.
MPs have today asked a whole series of questions about the role of the intelligence services in the catastrophic failure of the police inquiry into the worst atrocity of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
They can ask - but I would be surprised if they get any useful answers from the government, even though detectives haven’t managed to successfully convict a single member of the dissident republican gang who bombed Omagh killing 29 people and two unborn children in August 1998.
In particular, MPs want an inquiry into the “substantial” question of why intercepts of the mobile phones of the bombers en route to Omagh were not shared with the detectives trying to identify them.
The intercepts were carried out by the government’s eavesdropping centre GCHQ, as revealed by the 2008 Panorama: Omagh: What The Police Were Never Told.
The MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee also say questions “remain about whether the bombing could have been pre-empted”.
As committee chairman Sir Patrick Cormack says: “Far too many questions remain unanswered.” The least that the “bereaved or injured have the right to expect are answers to those questions.”
Sir Patrick describes this report as perhaps the committee’s single most important report this Parliament.
He makes a powerful case for getting answers.
Yet it’s also clear the government doesn’t wish to provide them.
I have been asking the same questions to different branches of the government and intelligence services for several months. They don’t return calls or e-mails.
Ministers appear to want to draw the final curtain on Omagh.
They are simply not prepared to subject to public scrutiny the decisions of the intelligence services and how they impacted on the police inquiry. Once again, national security is said to be at stake.
The Committee’s inquiry followed a report by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, retired appeal court judge Sir Peter Gibson, into the sharing of intercept intelligence.
Sir Peter was asked by the prime minister to review how “any intercepted intelligence... was shared” after I disclosed on Panorama the existence of intercepts and that they and the numbers were withheld from the CID.
However, the MPs criticise what they call “the unsatisfactory nature” of Sir Peter’s inquiry “and subsequent report”.
In Sir Peter’s non-classified published report and in his evidence to the committee, neither he nor the Northern Ireland Secretary would confirm or deny if intercepts had even existed. The committee found this “repeated failure to confirm or clarify... exasperating.”
It also turns out that Sir Peter’s remit was more narrowly focused by the prime minister than was suggested at the time.
TAKEN TO TASK
It concentrated on whether immediately before the bombing, it could have been stopped. Sir Peter said it could not have been and accused the BBC of making “very serious and harmful allegations” damaging “to the good name of the agencies.”
The committee takes Gordon Brown severely to task for not including in Sir Peter’s remit the central question raised by Panorama and the “one remaining substantial question” outlined in its report: Why neither the intercepts, nor even the telephone numbers of the bombers were ever disclosed to the detectives even though the intelligence services including the special branch knew they were trawling through 6.4 million billing records having worked out for themselves that mobiles must have been used on the bomb run?
As the MPs say, if telephones were being intercepted, “it would follow that the identities at least of the registered owners of those phones were known to the intelligence or security services”.
Although the numbers wouldn’t necessarily have identified the mobile users on the day of the bombing, detectives have told me that the addresses of their registered owners would nonetheless have provided them with a paper trail and the potential early exploitation of forensic and other evidence.
Even though the Cabinet Office statement announcing Sir Peter’s Review said it would examine how any “intercepted intelligence... was shared,” he disclosed that he had not, in fact, investigated why the intercept intelligence had not been shared with the CID.
The committee says “It is unclear to us precisely what Sir Peter Gibson did investigate. We find all this obfuscation very frustrating.”
All Sir Peter’s non classified report says about the failure to share “any GCHQ material” with the CID is that “records show no... request was made” by Special Branch to GCHQ to disseminate it.
He highlights this in bold, thereby implying that had the Branch sought GCHQ’s approval, it would have been granted.
That is flatly contradicted by special branch officers in place at the time who have told me that, as owners of the intercept intelligence, GCHQ would not have authorised dissemination of even the fact that interception had taken place beyond a select group of special branch officers.
Much important intelligence in relation to Omagh and its linked bombings was withheld by the branch.
However, branch sources say that, when it came to GCHQ intercepts, there was no point in even asking.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, said the question of intelligence sharing with the CID had, anyway, been investigated in 2001 by the then Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Dame (now Baroness) Nuala O’Loan.
Lady O’Loan told the committee, however, that to this day, she did not know why the intelligence had not been shared. She too had been “confused” by Sir Peter’s report.
She disclosed that she had known telephone numbers were known to the special branch which should have been shared and might have led to arrests.
I understand, however, that she was not allowed by the intelligence agencies to refer to the existence of telephone numbers in her report.
The committee urges Mr Woodward to “revise his view that this issue ‘has had its inquiry’ and to institute an immediate investigation into whether, and, if so, why, this intelligence was withheld”.
It asks: “What public interest justification there can be, if any, for the withholding of intelligence, information or evidence from the team of detectives who investigated the Omagh bombing?”
The prime minister has refused repeated requests by Sir Patrick Cormack for sight of Sir Peter’s 60 page classified report.
Sir Patrick says it is “thoroughly reprehensible that the government should seek to prevent the parliamentary committee charged with oversight of the affairs of Northern Ireland such access, and we believe that the government’s attitude in that respect has done more damage than good”.
Gordon Brown has, however, shared the classified report with Dr Kim Howells, chairman of the Intelligence & Security Committee which reports directly to No.10 - not to Parliament - and whose hearings are private.
Dr Howells has made no comment on the failure to exploit the intercept intelligence. Sir Patrick has asked him to “revisit Sir Peter’s conclusions.” That also seems unlikely. Like the government, Dr Howells has not replied to my emails, but maybe MPs will have better luck.