Page last updated at 19:08 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Downing Street defends Omagh bomb intelligence move

Aftermath of Omagh bomb
Twenty-nine people died as a result of the Omagh bomb

Downing Street has defended its refusal to share intelligence over the 1998 Omagh bombing in which 29 people died.

The prime minister's official spokesman said it was about national security and only a limited number of people could have access to sensitive information.

MPs wanted the information as part of an inquiry into how much intelligence services knew about the bombers.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, published on Tuesday, said too many questions remain unanswered.

The committee has called for a fresh investigation into whether the state withheld vital information from detectives hunting the Omagh bombers.

Killers' movements

Key questions which need to be addressed include whether the attack could have been prevented and whether enough was done to catch the killers after the explosion, the committee said.

The committee wants to establish how much the security services knew about the killers' movements at the time of the bombing.

John Ware on Omagh intelligence move

Its chairman, Sir Patrick Cormack, criticised the government for not providing it with the full contents of the Gibson Report, which examined the role of the intelligence services.

He said they had only been allowed to see an edited version.

However, it is understood that another committee of MPs, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), has seen the full report.

The ISC oversees some aspects of the work of the intelligence services and regularly receives highly classified material.

Twenty-nine people, including a mother pregnant with twins, died in the Real IRA attack in Omagh on 15 August 1998.

No-one has been convicted of the murders.

The NI Affairs committee undertook an inquiry into the security services' role after claims in a BBC Panorama documentary that the government's listening station GCHQ had monitored suspects' mobile phone calls as they drove to Omagh from the Irish Republic on the day of the atrocity.

Sir Patrick Cormack said too many questions remain unanswered

The Panorama programme said this information was never passed to Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) detectives assigned to the case.

While a subsequent review by Intelligence Services Commissioner, Sir Peter Gibson, rejected a number of Panorama's assertions, committee chairman Sir Patrick Cormack said the bereaved still needed answers.

"Far too many questions remain unanswered," he said.

"The criminal justice system has failed to bring to justice those responsible for the Omagh bombing.

"The least that those who were bereaved or injured have the right to expect are answers to those questions."

Sir Patrick also criticised the government for refusing to give the committee sight of Sir Peter Gibson's full report.

Concerns

After reviewing the edited summary, committee members agreed with Sir Peter's claim that information obtained by GCHQ was not monitored in 'real time' and therefore could not have prevented the bombing.

But it raised concerns about the data flow after the attack, in particular whether names of the suspected bombers were known and, if so, why they were not passed to police officers.

In particular, the inquiry said there was a need to establish the part played by RUC Special Branch - the police's anti-terrorism unit at the time - and whether it was handed data by GCHQ but failed to pass it on to RUC colleagues in the Crime Investigation Department (CID) who were working on the Omagh case.

As well as calling for a fresh examination of the intelligence, the committee's report also:

  • Found that questions remain about whether the bombing could have been pre-empted by action against terrorists who carried out earlier bombings in 1998.
  • Called for a definitive statement on whether the names of those thought to have been involved in the bombing were known to the intelligence services, Special Branch, or the RUC in the days immediately after the bombing, and if so, why no arrests resulted.
  • Asked the government to justify the argument that the public interest is best served by keeping telephone intercepts secret rather than using them to bring murderers to justice.
  • Called on the UK's Intelligence and Security Committee to reconsider how any intercept intelligence was or was not used.
  • Recommended that the government considers providing legal aid for the victims of terrorism if they bring civil actions against suspected perpetrators once criminal investigation has failed to bring a prosecution.

Sir Peter Gibson was one of a number of witnesses who gave evidence to the committee during its inquiry.

Others who faced the MPs' questions included Panorama reporter John Ware, victims' relatives Michael Gallagher and Godfrey Wilson, former Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Sir Hugh Orde and detectives who investigated the bombing.



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