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Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Have you ever wondered what happens in the World of Spooks and Intelligence gathering? This is an attempt, albeit a small attempt to demystify some of the undercover stratagems. These comments are loosely based on the practical experience of dealing with our nearest neighbour. This interest was very aptly captured during the lengthy process of the Smithwick Tribunal which reported in 2013.

The British Army brought three undercover units to the party – 22 Squadron SAS, which undertook ‘executive actions’, 14 Company, specialising in covert surveillance and FRU. The security services (MI5) brought their agent-handling and electronic technical expertise to the table. These units, plus Special Branch, were commonly described as the intelligence community. The FRU was manned by officers of the Intelligence Corps and by soldiers from all the British services. The operators, or handlers, were themselves recruited from all three services – Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force and included both men and women.

The Force Research Unit (FRU) was a British Army Intelligence Corps unit working in Northern Ireland, recruiting, developing and controlling the Army’s ‘human intelligence’ assets in Britain’s secret war on the IRA. Its motto was ‘Fishers of Men’. It was sponsored and funded by the Director of Special Forces (DSF). The FRU operated from 1980 up until the early 1990s when its name was changed to the Joint Services Group (JSG).

The British[JO1] have a well-developed policy of using deniables, former members of the security establishment contracted to undertake certain operations for a commercial fee. Peter Keeley/ Kevin Fulton was an FRU asset initially before branching out to provide “services” to the other agencies. There was often intense competition between the agencies which led to many problems.

British Penetration

The British have a long history in the spying game going back for centuries. It is no coincidence that one of the most hated adjectives in Ireland is “Informant or Tout”. It is now well documented that the PIRA was penetrated from top to bottom. These included Denis Donaldson, Scapppaticci and Fulton getting right inside the organisation. This agent penetration was supported by a technical resource infrastructure North and South. They had readymade raw material from within their own military because so many Irish joined the British Army in addition to locally acquired assets. This was the Fulton model, general intelligence gathering could be conducted easily using these assets.

Agent/ Asset/Operator/Informant

Intelligence agencies use all and every opportunity to exploit intelligence. This involves using different resources. Straightforwardly their own personnel are inserted into the target to gather intelligence, to spy on the host and to report back to mother ship. Their asset can be tasked to engage in operations which is like the Kevin Fulton model. There is little regard for legality or jurisdictional boundaries in such arrangements other than the ability to disown and deny operations. Fulton was an insider at least at the beginning. Freddie Scappaticci Stakeknife was the opposite, he was recruited within the host PIRA and tasked to carry out an agenda for his new owners. He was an active operator not merely an intelligence informant. The informant is at the bottom of the tree and basically agrees to pass information to the handler/exploiter. There is a superior controlling structure in place many levels above the street operators. (This was not explored by the Tribunal.) Then there is an interesting British development, the “participating informant”. This asset is provided for to some degree in British law and basically allowed to take part in criminal activity while feeding information back. Fulton was a participating informant for RUC CID in the late 90s. Then there are of course the “helpful idiots”, exploited through social engineering to give up the goodies. Sections of the media figure prominently in that category.

Structure and Trade Craft

There is normally a structure in place to handle and support an agent. On an elementary level each agent has a handler who directs and controls the agent, hopefully! The agent is briefed and tasked to perform. There must be regular briefings and debriefings either in person or remotely. Information must be faithfully recorded and analysed. There is a danger of an agent going native and being turned by the other side. The British did that very successfully with German agents captured during the last war. It is common practice to insert more than one agent into target organisations without either agent being aware of the others existence. Also, contingency plans would be put in place to extract the agent in the event of compromise. Similarly, if a serious crime was imminent police or security services could run interference or disruption tactics to ensure the victim was spared. The Tom Oliver abduction was a classic scenario where the undercover agent (Fulton) should have activated protocols with his handlers to ensure that Oliver was not killed. Cynically it’s also possible that the sponsoring agency would decide not to intervene to protect their agent in place. In this instance the encounter of the Oliver kidnap team with Gardaí would have given cover for a rescue.


An active agent operator can maintain deep cover and withstanding physical and psychological pressure. It is essential that they can lie convincingly and that they can convince their host that they are the genuine article. They must have strong technical skills and be of high intelligence. It is a fact that many agents go off the rails and eventually become unmanageable. The double life can extract a high price and their agencies are usually unsentimental and can just as easily abandon them when no longer useful. Fulton displayed many of the skills of obfuscation and diversion in the course of his evidence. In many ways he led the Tribunal on a merry dance. Judge Cory had recommended that the tribunal should also be empowered to engage investigators. These might be police officers or retired police officers trained and experienced in conducting investigations. This logical option was not actioned and much of the “investigative” work had an “Alice in Wonderland” quality about it. The lawyers simply didn’t know what they didn’t know. Agents are highly trained in various trade craft disciplines including anti-surveillance and anti-interrogation techniques. The lawyer’s approach was incredibly naïve, and it was unconscionable that they were allowed six years of investigative work before ever taking evidence. It’s obvious that Fulton’s tradecraft was greatly superior to the lawyers arrayed around him. He had withstood the chance of sudden and violent death at the hands of PIRA. He had negotiated that reality for many years. Lawyers tricky questions were an amusement to him


Counterintelligence was not part of my brief but invariably one’s thoughts turned to the probability that other agencies would try to infiltrate, recruit and generally busy themselves at our expense. A popular misconception is that spying, and subversion has to do only with terrorism and crime. This could not be further from the truth. Economic and political considerations are of great interest to our friends and to our enemies. Would anyone doubt for a moment that our national position on Brexit would not be of interest to the United Kingdom. They most certainly have the established capacity through interception technology and human resources to winkle out our secrets.

“The most striking physical feature of GCHQ’s[1] participation in the intelligence war against the IRA was a 150-foot-high concrete tower built in 1989 within a secure compound at Capenhurst in Cheshire owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. It was on a direct line between the British Telecom Medium Wave Tower at Holyhead in Anglesey and another tower at Sutton Common near Macclesfield, a microwave link which carried most of the telephone calls between mainland Britain and Ireland. Over a decade the Capenhurst tower had allowed GCHQ to intercept a vast volume of telephone traffic for analysis. A similar station on Croslieve Mountain in South Armagh is thought to have taken traffic between Belfast and Dublin. This was a classic example of the bonanza of clear voice material that could be provided by microwave telephone interception”. Electronic surveillance is valuable. The most valuable source is the human source which ranges from the “Helpful Idiots” to “mole’s and agents bought and paid for.

[1] Aldrich, Richard. GCHQ (pp. 500-501). HarperCollins Publishers.

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