Irish War: British Disease

Danielle Ni Dhighe nidhighe at
Mon Feb 12 18:43:58 MST 2001

Irish War: British Disease
By Tony Geraghty

In 1968 the world's oldest guerrilla movement renewed its war against the
world's shrewdest, most experienced colonial army. An earlier round of this
match - the IRA v. the British Army - had been played from 1916 to 1921 and
resulted in a clear victory for the Irish, politically as well as
militarily. Out of 32 counties, 26 were granted independent statehood
outside British jurisdiction. The remaining, Protestant-dominated Six
Counties of Northern Ireland, were still part of the UK. It was a poor
compromise but the best that could be achieved after three centuries of
creeping warfare, terrorism and counter-terror in which the British took
hostages, shot them and burned the houses of innocent civilians as a
reprisal for Irish atrocities.

The year of sixty-eight was an auspicious one for revolution. In Paris, Les
Evenements almost toppled De Gaulle. In the US, Kent State University
radicalised a generation of young people already disenchanted with the war
in Vietnam. In Czechoslovakia, a doomed resistance movement made its
poetic, hopeless gesture of defiance against the Soviets. In Africa, the
minority Ibo fought their failed campaign for independence from Nigeria.
Not since 1956 (Hungary, Suez) had resistance enjoyed such chic.

The age of war-by-perception had arrived.
The IRA had an opportunity in keeping with the age. A civil rights
movement, discarding the worn-out old verities of nationalism (or so it
seemed) snapped at the heels of the Protestant jackboot like a terrier. The
jackboot obligingly kicked the dog with excessive force. Television cameras
recorded the police batons, the broken heads of unarmed demonstrators. It
was a brilliant exercise in victimology and agitpropaganda which
discredited, at a stroke, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The age of
war-by-perception had arrived. If it were immoral - as Western governments
asserted - for Soviet tanks to crush legitimate protest in Prague, then how
could London justify the use of police armoured cars and machine guns in
Belfast, where they killed a nine-year-old as he huddled fearfully inside
his own bedroom?

In August 1969, a Labour government grudgingly permitted the soldiers to
move in as peacemakers, foolishly believing they would be withdrawn by
Christmas. The IRA rapidly rearmed but as yet it did not enjoy the popular
support any successful guerrilla army needs to survive. Then one of its
arsenals, in a grimy terraced house in Belfast, was raided by British
soldiers. A riot began. The affair escalated. A British general imposed an
illegal curfew on the district as a wholesale gun battle began between the
IRA and soldiers who had never experienced urban warfare and did not know
the city. In the darkness, some British soldiers fired at other British
soldiers. By the end of that weekend, and the removal of the curfew,
Catholic opinion had hardened against the old enemy and the IRA had the
political base it needed to renew the war in earnest.

The British High Command did not, as yet, comprehend the problem it faced.
In Malaya, in the fifties, it had fought a successful war against Communist
guerrillas which had come to be regarded as a model for future campaigns.
The strategy was known as The Briggs Plan, after the general who devised
it, Harold Briggs. It welded years of experience of irregular warfare into
a doctrine, which he expressed as follows:

"The problem of clearing Communist bandits from Malaya was similar to that
of eradicating malaria from a country. Flit guns and mosquito nets, in the
form of military and police, though giving some very local security if
continuously maintained, effected no permanent cure. Such a permanent cure
entailed the closing of all the breeding areas."

So it was that The Briggs Plan required the movement of half a million
Chinese peasants from "squatter" camps along the jungle fringe, for these
were the "breeding areas" for revolution. They were forced into "protected"
villages so that the areas thus "cleared" became zones in which soldiers
could use lethal force, on sight, if that seemed right. Resettlement became
the key to British counter-insurgency. In Vietnam, the American high
command followed the same formula. In Algeria, the French used the
strategy, backed by the torture of terrorist captives, to separate the
civilians from the armed enemy disguised as civilians.

The policy broke down in Ireland. The use of British paratroopers at Bloody
Sunday - 30 January 1972 - to massacre fourteen demonstrators merely
suspected of acting as a cover for IRA gunmen was the political and public
relations disaster that obliged the soldiers to devise a new strategy. In
time, what they evolved was an invisible form of the protected village: an
electronic cage in which large numbers of people would lose their privacy
in order that lethal force, when used, killed the "right" people in brief
contacts that led to a "clean kill." The unwritten rules of this new form
of warfare required the terrorist to be caught in the act, gun in hand when
he was shot before he had a chance to appreciate that he, not his intended
victim, was the target.

The clean-kill strategy got off to a bad start in 1978. A farmer's son,
aged 16, ferreting about in a disused cemetery, discovered an Armalite
rifle and other IRA stores. His father alerted the police, who called in
the Special Air Service. Two SAS soldiers sat and waited, until someone
came to retrieve the weapons. Then they shot him. As it turned out, the
person they shot was the farmer's son. The boy was prompted by adolescent
curiosity to come back for another look.

In the years that followed, however, an elaborate machine that combined
surveillance with intelligence analysis was constructed to avoid mistakes
of that sort. The Army put together a series of secret groups - the Mobile
Reconnaissance Force (MRF); 14 Intelligence Company and their Detachments -
trained by the SAS to do nothing else but stalk IRA suspects, day and
night. From the Intelligence Corps was created yet another team - the FRU
(Field, or Force, Reconnaissance Unit) - whose job is to control informers
inside both the IRA and Protestant terror groups.

An Intelligence and Security Group - also headed by SAS officers - tried to
co-ordinate this increasingly autonomous series of special units as they
grew and operated secretly as part of a fast-growing empire of
unconventional warfare, outside the normal rules.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary, learning from the Army, created its own
special teams. One of these riddled a car with 109 bullets in 1982, killing
the unarmed occupants, who were terrorist suspects. The British police team
that tried to delve into this was itself compromised on a pretext of
security. In a separate case, a double-agent run by the FRU, used military
intelligence files to set up Irish republicans for assassination by their
Protestant enemies.

Slowly but surely, the Irish War was becoming a dirty war.
Slowly but surely, the Irish War was becoming a dirty war, Britain's
Algeria. The conflict was also revolutionising the techniques of
surveillance, techniques that would be turned upon a wider, civilian public
in Britain and Ireland with dangerous political implications for the day
when - if ever - the Irish conflict were resolved.

Some techniques were as old as war itself, though the use of concealed
observation posts by special agents was given a new twist by the SAS
soldier who remained hidden under a farmyard dung heap for several days,
insulated within a diver's wet suit for the purpose. The use of optics of
all kinds was enhanced as microcircuits shrank to the size of a pinhead.
Flexible fibre optic ("bootlace") lenses, developed for endoscopic medical
examinations - were adapted by special forces to be used in two London
terrorist sieges, those at Balcombe Street, 1975 and at the Iranian Embassy
five years later. The images were soon being transmitted from the target
area by microwave beams (the sort that carry telephone messages) to a
relay, or booster station concealed, in its turn, in a small van for onward

The British developed their systems in Germany as well as Ireland during
the Cold War years. In the former DDR, a military spy team camouflaged as a
diplomatic mission sent teams into the countryside to record the movements
of Warsaw Pact tanks and aircraft. The team, known as "BRIXMIS", was
probably the first to use video cameras for military espionage. By 1994,
the video camera was small enough to fit inside an electric light switch in
the home of a man suspected of a racial murder. It filmed and
sound-recorded a suspect, as one report put it, "toying with knives,
stabbing walls, windows and furniture as well as pretending to stab a
friend in the neck with an overarm blow" as he shouted racial abuse.

Surveillance of moving traffic was given total priority by the British
government after April 1992, when a huge lorry bomb shredded two office
tower blocks in the financial heart of London, the City. These were the
Baltic Exchange, home of world's leading shipping market, and the
Commercial Union building. The commercial insurance industry was staggered
when the bill of this damage was presented: almost £800 million.

An attack on Manchester's retail shopping centre four years later cost
around £400 millions. A few months later, the IRA hit London's financial
centre with a 1,000lb bomb causing damage estimated at £1 billion. Yet
another lorry bomb, wrecking newspaper offices at Canary Wharf, ending a
seventeen-month terrorist ceasefire, cost £80 millions. The British
government now began negotiations with the Irish rebels. As one newspaper
put it:

"Not since Hiroshima has a single bomb achieved the dramatic political
effect of the IRA's strike against London's docklands."

By this time, the London police had investigated more than 1,300 bombings
over a 27-year period. The capital, and the approaches to it, were coming
under continuous camera watch from automatic recorders fitted to motorway
bridges and other vantage points. The driver of the Canary Wharf bomb,
James McArdle, aged twenty-nine, from Crossmaglen - a de facto IRA Republic
in South Armagh - was convicted as a result of this and an obsessive search
for forensic evidence.

Yet in spite of these advances one element was still missing if new and old
technologies, from aerial photography to human shadows, were to come
together as a convincing foil to terrorists in this new style of conflict.
The missing ingredient was co-ordination and analysis of masses of raw
data. Of thousands of tourists passing Harrods department store in
Kensington each day, which was the bomber? Whose discarded bag of rubbish
was a bomb? The mechanism that fused sources of data and became the central
nervous system of the New Intelligence network was the computer.

As early as 1974 the British Army in Northern Ireland had introduced the
first computerised means of reading vehicle number plates. The system,
named VENGEFUL, enabled checkpoints on the Irish border to identify vehicle
ownership within thirty seconds. Soon, the system was swamped by an excess
of data and by 1977 it was focused on suspect vehicles only. The process
rapidly gathered momentum as the "electronic cage", replacing the fortified
village of Malaya, became the Army's principal means of controlling
civilians. A new computer, named CRUCIBLE, was put into the hands of 125
Intelligence Section in 1987. As the defence journalist Mark Urban noted:

"Crucible does not only store information on people and incidents but also
contains data on the ImovementsI of individuals, fed in from dozens of
terminals in the intelligence cells of [military] units around Ulster. The
introduction of the new computer brought some complaints from intelligence
officers who resented the amount of time which their men had to spend
feeding information into it...Computerization ..can compound mistakes and
the consequences - being detained at roadlblocks or having homes searched -
for people entered erroneously in the computer as terrorist suspects are
potentially damaging to the security forces."

There was assuredly scope for human error. By the time I was engaged in
research for my book, The Irish War, in 1996 approximately one million
individuals were logged into the computers of one security agency or
another in Northern Ireland: that is, two thirds of the population. Most of
them were innocent of any crime except, perhaps, that of thinking ill of
the government. As of 1994, for example, the Army had no fewer than
thirty-seven separate computer programmes trained on terrorists, their
families, their friends, neighbours and "associates" (that is, someone who
happened to be observed speaking to them, if only to ask the time of day).

This explosive growth was rendered less omniscient than it might have been
thanks to the continued rivalries among separate intelligence agencies,
unwilling as ever to share their knowledge, and the fact that the
respective computer programmes were incompatible with one another. An
independent expert brought in to study the problem in the late nineties
found that his reforms were less than welcome to some of the intelligence
mandarins, whose secret - and probably illegal - activities in their now
almost private war, might have been compromised by shared knowledge in the
interests of efficiency. What was missing, as ever in a dirty war, was
accountability. The spooks' problem was that technical efficiency carried
with it a greater degree of transparency, a shaft of light penetrating into
an hermetic culture from which even other soldiers are excluded.

Before examining the impact of this evolution upon British liberty across
the board, it has to be acknowledged that as a strategy to meet an elusive,
disciplined guerrilla and terrorist, the British Army's machine, in spite
of its imperfections, is the most successful and - when wanted - most
lethal so far. Since the mid-1980s, UK special forces have gone for the
kill at the moment the terrrorists were about to strike, justifying the
"clean kill" morality of this conflict and international law. Even the
shooting of three IRA terrorist in Gibraltar in 1988, when they were
unarmed, did not incur the outright condemnation of the European Court
(though it did find that the Gibraltar Three had a legal right to life that
was unlawfully breached). A year earlier, in a less contentious but
spectacular episode, eight IRA men were shot dead at Loughgall as they
attacked a police station. There were many similar cases.

Combined with the leakage from Army sources of personal data about
suspected terrorists and their families to Loyalist death squads, a highly
effective, precisely directed campaign of counter-violence and
counter-terror had been run when the IRA called its ceasefire in 1997. By
that time, it was taking a sufficiently large number of casualties to
provoke the need of a breathing space.

A basic British freedom - privacy - was stolen by a burgeoning official
intelligence network.
Throughout the thirty years of the conflict the British, bombs in London,
Manchester and elsewhere permitting, averted their eyes from what are
euphemistically called "The Troubles", (a word as anodyne as its French
equivalent, "Evenements".) Britain, a profoundly materialist society
dedicated to consumerism, did not wish to understand the consuming passion
of Irish revolution. Meanwhile, a basic British freedom - privacy - was
stolen by a burgeoning official intelligence network using the tools of the
Irish war in pursuit of paedophiles, drug barons and other outlaws: a
process which made the loss of freedom acceptable to all right-thinking people.

In May 1999, the British Home Secretary Jack Straw reminded a London
audience that there were now an estimated one million security cameras
keeping watch over stations, streets and shopping centres. On an average
day in the big city, most people would be filmed by more than 300 cameras
linked to 30 separate CCTV networks. In his eyes, this loss of privacy was
"a price worth paying" for greater security.

There is a fallacy in this claim as big as London's Millenium Dome. The
British, unlike most modern people, are not citizens of the country where
they are born, with the rights that status implies. They are not free men
and women, but subjects of the Crown, exposed to the caprice and legal
exceptions to be imposed by government whenever it chooses. Evidence can be
cooked, withheld or exposed only to a judge, in private, if it suits the
executive. This bizarre state of affairs - covered by the anodyne phrase,
the Crown Prerogative - exists because the British, unlike most other
modern nations, do not have the legal protection of a written constitution.
There is no US First Amendment; no Gallic-style Commission nationale de
l'informatique et des libertes; none of the basic rights as laid down so
earnestly in the postwar Bonn constitution. Instead, the English - this is
an essentially English dimension - work according to an unwritten
"separation of powers", spread around Parliament, Government, Judiciary and
Crown, all governed by usually unwritten "conventions", "understandings"
and precedents. In certain circumstances this situation might become a
life-or-death issue. Patrick McAuslan, Professor of Public Law at the
London School of Economics suggested in 1988 that "officers of the security
services could even be empowered to kill their fellow citizens, for one
aspect of the royal prerogative is the defence of the realm..."

Like any ambiguous, undefined system, it is open to abuse, particularly on
the part of a control-freak administration of the sort now reigning in
London. Ireland has encouraged not only the evolution of intrusive
intelligence into the lives of ordinary people, justified by a war
morality, but also a distorted legal process and, ultimately, an invisible
licence by special military units to cut legal corners, using anything from
blackmail and burglary - how do those concealed cameras get into your home
in the first place ? - to homicide to achieve a short term success. (The
results are not always what is expected. In Belfast, military intelligence
officers watched an IRA man as he ordered a new sofa at a department store.
Before it was delivered, they broke into the store and wired the sofa for
sound, with a built-in transmitter. Next day, the terrorist's wife changed
her mind about the furniture. She did not like the colour. It was promptly
bought by someone of no interest to British spies).

The British are now the most densely controlled and covertly surveilled
industrialised nation on earth.
The end result of this repressive culture, in which agents of the State are
above the law, is that the British are now the most densely controlled and
covertly surveilled industrialised nation on earth, living in a condition
of material affluence and zero privacy. To add to the million CCTV cameras
about which Jack Straw boasts we should add the knowledge that
approximately half of the UK's workforce is now under the eye of hidden
cameras in the workplace. A critical comment about the boss, made during a
visit to the toilet, will probably be recorded for use in a later dismissal
hearing. (Things could get worse and probably will: Japan has to be
credited with a particularly invasive innovation: the employee who visits
the office toilet is not merely recorded. The material he deposits in the
pan is then automatically analysed for traces of illegal drugs).

Foreign tourists visiting Britain should be aware of what awaits them.
Military intelligence cameras are up and running at most ports of entry.
Some of these might be linked to the latest, state-of-the-art "face
recognition" systems that make comparison with suspects with photographs
already on an official database. The practice of intruding on a French
citizen's right in this way, as he travelled through the Channel Tunnel,
has already provoked angry comment from Le Monde, as a result of which
London has agreed to destroy visitors' records (on request) after three months.

Unguarded conversation is a dangerous practice in Britain. Laser-carried
eavesdrop devices, linked to voice-identification programmes, pointed at
the office window can pick out and magnify conversations. As an
alternative, a hidden microphone linked to the right sort of computer will
identify one voice out of forty in the same room. (The second of these
requires careful preparation: a pre-recorded sample of the target's voice,
its analysis to obtain a "voice print" and the calibration of that on the
computer). The use of such devices in Britain, at worst, is no more than a
minor case for a civil, not criminal action.

Americans, fierce in defence of their right to express ideas freely across
the Internet, are already critical of the limitations they will face when a
new British law - to pass through Parliament in 2000 - giving the
Government, the police, or even local town councils - the right to
eavesdrop on e-mail. If this personal data is encrypted, then the new law
(the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) will empower those authorities
to demand the keys so as to decode the secrets concealed within, however
personal. To refuse access can lead to a two-year prison sentence.

Some of us wonder why the UK government is taking such trouble. For years,
the Anglo-American Echelon programme - a satellite-based, worldwide
eavesdrop system - has worked as a vacuum cleaner on behalf of intelligence
agencies such as GCHQ in Britain and the National Security Agency in
America. The new law will merely widen the application of what is already
happening, giving to local officials the godlike powers now limited to
government spooks.

Those powers, thanks to the moral corrosion arising from the Irish
conflict, are not always wisely exercised. At one extreme is that form of
murder described by Amnesty International in anodyne form as
"extra-judicial execution". A woman soldier named Jackie George served for
several years with an undercover surveillance team known as 14 Intelligence
Company. In a book about her experience she says that the Royal Ulster
Constabulary "seemed to believe that they could do whatever they wanted and
get away with it. The sad truth was that they probably could...They could
even arrange for you to die if it suited their purpose."

As yet, critics of Big Brother are not yet targeted for assassination in
Britain. They are, however, targeted for intense official harrassment, a
process in which the resources of the State are pitched against those of a
single individual with the intention of paralysing his efforts to earn a
living. This is what happened in my case. In the summer of 1998 an official
government censor - a retired Rear Admiral - scanned publishers' lists of
forthcoming books and started to take an interest in my upcoming history,
THE IRISH WAR. After I had refused to co-operate, my home was raided by six
detectives from a police force controlled by the Defence Ministry. After a
seven-hour search, my computer, floppy disks and files were seized and I
was taken to a police station for a five-hour interrogation. Later I was
charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act, a crime carrying a
two-year sentence on conviction. The charge was dropped without apology -
though my legal costs were paid by the government - after more than a year
of stress, harrassment and stalking.

The overflow of Big Brother's morality, as well as his techniques, into
civil society now touches almost every aspect of life in the UK. The sales
representative's company car is tracked by the same satellite/computer
system as that used by British intelligence against the Sinn Fein leader
Gerry Adams at a pivotal point in the Irish peace process. While Adams was
being bugged and tracked, a leading car fleet operator - GECapital,
providing 9,300 cars for British firms - was fitting the "Fleet Command"
tracker (one of many available) to its vehicles. The size of a small
chocolate box, the device can be hidden at any of eight different places.
The Automobile Association, with English understatement, described this
development as "not pleasant."

In the office meanwhile, as well as pinhole cameras, employers now check
typists' efficiency with the Psychic Watcher, a covert means of logging the
number of key strokes typed in any given period. (Intelligence services can
do it better: they can decode, remotely, what is being typed).

The unemployed, meanwhile, now come under the scrutiny of SAS-trained
agents to confirm that their social welfare benefits are not abused.
("Abuse" in Britain may include cohabitation by an unmarried mother, who is
deemed to be receiving economic support from her sexual partner. This law
is a charter for neighbours to snoop on the most intimate secrets of
others, a process of which the Stasi would have been proud). As the Daily
Telegraph newspaper reported:

"Former SAS soldiers are training social security fraud investigators in
surveillance techniques as part of a Government move against benefit
cheats...One investigator on the training course said: 'They treated us
like we were in the Army. The women were treated exactly the same as the
men. We are going to be out there 'getting' people left, right and centre."

Already, by 1996, there were 5,000 of these undercover agents at large. One
was the diminutive Fiona McAlpine, carrying - as one report put it - "a
range of equipment of which James Bond would be proud...A microphone hidden
in her handbag strap allows her to communicate with headquarters as she
tails suspects. The handbag also has a small hole in the side for a video
camera to poke through, while male colleagues have mini-cameras hidden on

Where Britain leads, others follow. All governments have an authoritarian
streak in them: it is a necessary muscle, when not misused. Such
influential states as Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf, as well as the
UK's malodorous customers in such places as Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigera and
Colombia will be glad to pay for the expertise as well as the hardware. The
disease spreads further. One correspondent wrote to me after my (highly
publicised) arrest: "I work in the computer industry on networks and what I
see coming down the line in the way of people-surveillance on and through
the Internet scares the hell out of me. Cameras, voice, data, word
matching, personality profiles, e-mail surveillance..If Hitler had had this
sort of control in 1938 we would all be speaking high German right now."
The correspondent concerned is based in Australia.

Is there a solution to the new British Disease? Paradoxically, the spirit
of freedom represented by the anarchy of the Internet will prove - already
proves - that government attempts to stifle a free flow of information
about what it does, is already a deterrent to tyrrany. For the Brits, the
only hope of legal protection, however, must lie in the European Court of
Human Rights, whose Convention, embodied in a new UK law (the Human Rights
Act) was to have been put into effect in October 2000. Perhaps that
explains why so many influential people in Britain are so opposed to a
closer integration of their country with their more civilised neighbours.

<mailto:toni at>Tony Geraghty is a veteran writer about defence
and terrorism. In March 2000 he received the Press Freedom Award from the
Freedom Forum of America, at a ceremony in London's financial quarter, in
recognition of his refusal to be intimidated by UK Government censorship.

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