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Page last updated at 20:02 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009
Q&A: Omagh intelligence report

By John Ware
Reporter, Panorama

Omagh bombing scene

In Panorama's Omagh: What The Police Were Never Told it was revealed that GCHQ had been eavesdropping on some of the mobile telephones used to coordinate the Omagh bombing.

The programme broadcast on 15th September last year also alleged that the detectives whose job it was to catch the bombers were never given vital intelligence that had been gleaned from the GCHQ intercepts.

Two days after transmission Prime Minister Gordon Brown ordered Sir Peter Gibson to conduct a review into "any intercepted intelligence material available to the security and intelligence agencies in relation to the Omagh bombing and how this intelligence was shared".

Sir Peter delivered his report to the Prime Minister before Christmas and a summary of his review was published Wednesday, 21 January.

Does Sir Peter Gibson's report mean that Panorama got it wrong over Omagh?

There are three key issues contained within the programme. The first is the revelation that GCHQ was, at the request of Special Branch in Northern Ireland monitoring mobile phones of some of the bombers on the day of the bombing and in the weeks leading up to it.

The second is the question, predicated on the intercepts being done in "real time" of whether or not the bombing could have been prevented.

The third and final issue is the question that occupied the bulk of the programme; why were the detectives hunting the bombers not told about the intelligence that GCHQ had gathered - intelligence which could have allowed them to make early arrests.

Sir Peter Gibson's report deals only with the second issue - could the bombing have been prevented?

He does not deny that interception took place and the central question remains as to why intelligence gathered by GCHQ and passed to Special Branch was not shared with the CID officers whose job it was to catch and imprison the bombers. In this regard we are still waiting for answers.

So was the monitoring live? Could the bombing have been prevented?

Sir Peter Gibson states categorically that the bombing could not have been prevented. Whether this is because the monitoring was not live is not made clear.

He states in the body of his report that "Intercepts relating to the telephone numbers designated by Special Branch as having highest priority were monitored live".

However in a later section he says that "Special Branch did not identify to GCHQ any particular phone number as being of particular importance or relevance to a potential bombing (in Omagh or elsewhere) nor is there any evidence that Special Branch believed that GCHQ could pinpoint the location of a particular mobile phone."

This would seem to imply that monitoring on the day of the bombing was not live - which begs the question "Why Not?"

Panorama was told categorically by Special Branch sources that live monitoring had been expected and that they would be able to use it as a "trigger" to disrupt the bombers.

If the system was incapable of locating the phones, why would Special Branch sources have told the BBC that they expected that it could?

But what about those parts of the report which say that Panorama got it wrong on several key points? Particularly that the mobiles could not have been tracked?

Sir Peter's report takes issue with the detail of how Panorama presented the tracking. We agree that one graphic in the programme gave the impression that the location of the particular mobile phone could have been ascertained to an accuracy in terms of metres.

However, this does not mean that it was not possible for the mobiles to be tracked to within the area covered by a single mobile phone mast.

Between the Irish border at Aughnacloy where the bombers crossed and Omagh there were, at the time, eight masts which would have enabled the general direction of travel to be seen.

The issue at the heart of this is not whether one Panorama graphic was potentially misleading but goes back to the question of whether or not the Special Branch had been specific enough in their tasking of GCHQ - had they "requested" or actually confirmed that live monitoring was to be performed?

If they hadn't then indeed Sir Peter's conclusion that "there was no locational material such as would have enabled the RUC to direct any response by the security service or prevented the bombing" would be correct.

Sir Peter says: "Assertions were made in the Panorama programme that GCHQ did not pass its intercepted intelligence to the Investigation Team to help the enquiry." This has been interpreted by some newspapers that you accused GCHQ of not sharing its information. Did you?

Categorically not. Although Sir Peter's report focuses on the role of GCHQ it doesn't always reflect the facts as they appeared in the programme. In fact the programme stood well back from the issue of who was to blame for the information blockage.

The programme said: "The question is: how much of GCHQ's intelligence found its way to the detectives and when? The blunt truth is that none of the stories match up about who got what and when."

And again later: "If the Special Branch are complaining about GCHQ then the CID make a similar complaint about the Special Branch.

The detectives were pleading for intelligence. But their log records nothing until three and a half weeks after the bomb exploded. The Special Branch say the log is incomplete. They insist they briefed the detectives immediately.

What is clear is that the detectives didn't get everything. Special Branch says that's because GCHQ wouldn't allow the detectives to know there had been intercepts."

Sir Peter's report states that "I am satisfied that in the days surrounding 15 August, and on the day itself, to the extent that any relevant intelligence was derived from interception, it was shared with RUC HQ and Special Branch South promptly and fully, and done so with the latter in accordance with procedures agreed with Special Branch South."

Unfortunately Sir Peter's review does not cover what happened to that intelligence after it was received by Special Branch, and that was at the core of the Panorama programme.

In fact Sir Peter does acknowledge that Special Branch could have asked for GCHQ's permission to allow the CID officers to see the intelligence but that "The records show that no such request was made".

He goes on to say that "It was not part of the terms of my review that I should investigate, nor have I investigated, the reasons why Special Branch South acted in the cautious way it did".

This failure to share intelligence was at the very heart of the Panorama programme and it's omission from Sir Peter's report leaves a gaping hole in our knowledge of the tragedy that surrounds Omagh.

Hasn't the BBC raised expectations from the families that the deaths of their loved ones could have been avoided?

Again, categorically no. Nine weeks before transmission the BBC contacted the PSNI and Home Office department which deals with matters relating to the security services and briefed them in detail about the content of the programme.

We were acutely aware that if we had got major parts of the story wrong that this could have had a devastating impact on the families. We asked the government to tell us if what we were saying could not be borne out by the facts, or to give their version of events. We received no reply.

The BBC fully briefed the relatives before transmission and explained to them what we did and didn't know about the telephone intercepts performed by GCHQ.

We made it clear that we did not know that the bombing could be avoided, but were simply asking the questions which naturally flowed from our knowledge that interception of mobile telephones had taken place.

Michael Gallagher, spokesman for the Omagh Support and Self-Help Group has rejected Sir Peter's criticisms that the BBC raised expectations.

"On the contrary we believe the BBC and John Ware (the programme's reporter) actually highlighted something that we had concerns for on both sides of the border for over a number of years," Mr Gallagher told the BBC.

He added: "So we are grateful to John Ware and the BBC for the programme that was broadcast".

Most of the above points were explained by John Ware verbally and in writing to Sir Peter Gibson, and to the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward. However, they have not been included in the published statements.



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