[back] Northern Ireland
The Sunday Herald
By Neil Mackay Home Affairs Editor
BRITAIN'S intelligence chiefs face a hugely embarrassing fiasco this weekend over the exposure on the internet of one of the military's most prized secret agents.
With the kind of Orwellian double-think only Britain's spymasters can muster, one arm of the Ministry of Defence spent yesterday trying to gag the Sunday Herald and stop us revealing the identity of the female army undercover agent - despite the fact she is named on the internet. Meanwhile, the formal press liaison this paper has with the intelligence services at the MoD supported our right to name her.
Until now she has been identified as Captain M - a member of the covert Force Research Unit (FRU) that served under Brigadier Gordon Kerr, the Aberdonian former Gordon Highlander who is now British military attache to Beijing.
M, or Mags as she has also been called, is accused by former members of the FRU of colluding with loyalist terror gangs in the murder of prominent Catholics and nationalists in the late 1980s. She is still an army officer with the Intelligence Corps and is the subject of a long-running police investigation headed by Sir John Stevens, the Scotland Yard commissioner.
In a series of investigations over the last two months, the Sunday Herald has revealed both the activities of the FRU in Northern Ireland and the operations M masterminded. These include passing information to the outlawed Ulster Defence Association which was used to murder the Catholic solicitor Pat Finucane.
In December, the Sunday Herald was again threatened with an interdict by the MoD after officials learned that this newspaper knew the identity and location of M and had a photograph of her. At the time the Sunday Herald decided not to reveal her identity as this could have seriously prejudiced her safety.
However, the Sunday Herald, Sunday Times and Sunday People were tipped off early last week that M's identity had been revealed on a US website dedicated to releasing intelligence information. The Sunday Herald notified Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, the secretary of the MoD's D-Notice Committee, the body that decides whether or not to gag the press on the grounds of national security. Wilkinson checked the site and said that as M's identity was now in the public domain, newspapers were free to publish her identity.
Within hours, the MoD was back in touch with the Sunday Herald via Treasury Solicitor Roland Phillips. He made it clear that, unless we issued him with an undertaking that we would not publish her name, he was instructed to seek an immediate interdict to prevent us naming her.
He said the MoD did not consider M's identity to be in the public domain since only 230 people had read the internet document.
However, John Young, who runs the intelligence website based in New York, said that at least 3000 people had visited the FRU page by Friday afternoon. He accused British intelligence of illegally hacking into his site to find out who was accessing the material.
Young says he will not remove her name until a US judge compels him. It is unlikely an American court would do so due to the First Amendment, guaranteeing the right to freedom of the press.
Claims that the information on the internet would not harm M as long as it was not repeated in the press were proved ridiculous when a senior member of the republican movement contacted the Sunday Herald to say they had seen her name online.
Both Phillips and Wilkinson admitted the situation was farcical.
The Sunday Herald's solicitor, Peter Watson, said the threat of gagging made a ''mockery of the Labour government's pledge of open government''. Watson also said that the absurd position of the MoD in both attacking and supporting the same newspaper showed how the ''old and new guard inside the military establishment were riven over secrecy''. He added that it was ''apparent that the MoD was incapable of making one clear policy''. Both the Sunday People and Sunday Times were also forced to back down from publishing M's identity.
The MoD's claim that it wishes to protect the identities of agents in order to prevent assassination attempts is highly questionable. Last year the chief whistleblower to the Stevens inquiry, a former FRU officer who goes by the cover name Martin Ingram, had his real identity leaked to the press by former FRU colleagues.
The MoD took no action to protect his identity and a police inquiry into the leak was later dropped. The MoD also took no action against the Sunday Herald when it revealed the identity of Gordon Kerr last year.
As one disaffected FRU source said: ''It is a matter of who should be protected. The protection is not equal. Ingram is a whistleblower so they don't care about him. Kerr is out of the country so he is safe. But Mags is important. If anyone is jailed for collusion with loyalists it will be her, and the powers that be don't want that. So she is untouchable for the moment.''