Irish War: British Disease


Or, how Big Brother overcame liberty at home as well as "across the water".

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a Labour government grudgingly permitted the soldiers to move in as peacemakers, foolishly believing they would be withdrawn by Christmas.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 transmission.

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 tie-pins."

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.

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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