The troubled ex-informers neglected by MI5

Agents are essential to the fight against terrorism. But our gratitude sometimes seems to come with an expiry date

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

When a terrorist group is active in the UK — as Islamist extremists and dissident republicans are at the moment — there is no more essential figure in the prevention of carnage than an agent working for the security services. Reliable intelligence is what defuses bombs, intercepts arms caches, and apprehends suspects. Its acquisition can involve unimaginable personal risks, in circumstances of nerve-shredding tension. We should all be grateful, but most of us never get to know what to say thank you for, or to whom. An agent’s success manifests itself in nothing happening. Its continued value depends on secrecy.

Is MI5 grateful on our behalf? Well, it seems that gratitude for intelligence sources may come with an expiry date. Earlier this month, for example, the BBC interviewed a former MI5 surveillance officer, codenamed Robert Acott, who claimed to have spied for 18 years, mostly on Irish and Islamist targets.

After 9/11, he said, MI5 found itself worryingly short of Muslim agents, and officers such as Acott struggled to compensate. After the Tube bomb attacks in July 2005 the stakes grew higher. Acott had his first panic attack as he followed a suspected suicide bomber on to the Tube. He began to have nightmares, further panic attacks, and problems with alcohol. Acott said that when his health problems became obvious, MI5 ‘wanted rid of me’: he was dismissed for ‘gross misconduct’ after leaving an MI5 manual, which he claims was of negligible security value, in his shed.

Security sources have said that this is only half the story, and perhaps it is. Given the nature of MI5, we are unlikely ever to hear the other half. But it is not the only accusation of abandonment currently being levelled at the organisation. Martin McGartland, a former agent who infiltrated the IRA on behalf of RUC Special Branch, is suing MI5 for breach of contract and negligence in his care.

McGartland’s story is one of the most compelling to emerge from the Troubles. He was recruited to spy for Special Branch in West Belfast as a teenager, drifting towards petty crime and resentful of local IRA enforcers. He later joined the IRA at the request of the police, and became part of an IRA unit planning gun and bomb attacks. Between 1989 and 1991, as ‘Agent Carol’, he was estimated to have saved more than 50 lives, but eventually — after a series of jobs in which he was involved went wrong — his IRA colleagues grew suspicious. He was abducted, taken to a tower block in West Belfast and tied up. As McGartland knew, the IRA routinely tortured suspected informers, taped a ‘confession’, then shot them dead. When he asked to use the bathroom and saw the tub filled with cold water for his imminent ordeal, he flung himself head first through a third-floor window. He sustained multiple injuries but survived.

McGartland was given a new identity in England, which was blown in 1997 when Northumbria Police brought a speeding charge against him and his real name was revealed in court. He agitated for police protection, which was not deemed necessary until a two-man IRA team turned up at his home in Tyne and Wear in 1999 and shot him six times. As McGartland battled for his life in hospital, Northumbria Police said it was ‘keeping an open mind’ on IRA involvement. A number of national newspapers simultaneously got the erroneous idea that McGartland’s shooting was a result of involvement with drugs gangs. When he eventually recovered, he successfully sued them all for libel.

McGartland now has yet another identity, but he has been left with psychiatric problems and physical disabilities. One aspect of his court case — along with a request for help with disability payments — is that MI5 should compensate him for the years in which it refused to pay for psychiatric care and medication. The case, however, has been prolonged partly because the Home Office will ‘neither confirm nor deny’ that he was ever an agent, and has insisted on secret proceedings, with McGartland and his legal team barred from hearing the authorities’ evidence.

There are strong general grounds for the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy, but it seems ridiculous in McGartland’s case. As ‘Agent Carol’, he featured prominently in the memoirs of Ian Phoenix, the former senior Special Branch officer killed in the 1994 Chinook helicopter disaster. He has been subjected to two IRA assassination attempts and given two new identities by the security services. While McGartland has energetically publicised his story — in particular with his book Fifty Dead Men Walking — there is a wealth of evidence supporting his claims.

Another former agent, Raymond Gilmour — who infiltrated both the INLA and the IRA and was the key witness in the collapsed 1980s ‘supergrass’ trials — has also claimed that he was ‘cast adrift’ by the security services. Gilmour now has serious psychiatric problems, and his NHS consultant felt compelled to write to MI5 in 2013 asking that it bypass his risk of exposure by taking over his care.

In their time, agents such as McGartland and Gilmour — working-class Catholic youths who mixed unobtrusively in republican circles — were prized sources. They helped to prevent many terrorist attacks, but after their exposure they lost all the things that hold a person together: identity, community, family. Then, after the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the political music stopped and the key players of The Troubles were all sitting in different chairs, some in government. There was a hitherto unthinkable rapprochement between the British establishment and former leaders of the IRA. In diehard republican circles, the difficulties of McGartland and Gilmour are received with tangible glee.

Since the 1990s, the lid has partially slid off ‘the dirty war’ in Northern Ireland, and what lies beneath isn’t pretty. One striking feature of it is what I would call the ‘agent paradox’. If an agent within a terrorist unit is linked to too many failed operations, other members will gradually begin to suspect them. To prove their credentials — and prolong their intelligence work — they will eventually have to be involved in an operation that goes as planned, at which point they become an active participant in terrorism. In a perpetually fluid situation, their handlers will have to decide at what point, if any, the cut-off lies. Should they, for example, overlook an agent’s participation in an assassination in order to acquire information that might stop a city-centre bombing?

Perhaps the most grotesque illustration of the agent paradox was Freddie Scappaticci, or ‘Stakeknife’, an IRA informant run by the British Army who was a leading member of the IRA’s feared ‘nutting squad’. His job was to vet new members and weed out informers, a brutal role that placed him above suspicion. Unfortunately, it also meant that ‘Stakeknife’ — regarded by army intelligence as their ‘golden egg’ — was allegedly closely involved in the murder of lower-level informants.

The murky business of ‘Covert Human Intelligence’ can be made more accountable and less dirty, but I don’t think it can be rendered entirely clean. As the domestic threat from Islamist terrorism rises, high-level insider information — with all its dilemmas — will be more necessary than ever. A former RUC Special Branch officer also told me of his concern that low-level networks of knowledge are not well established in UK Muslim communities, in contrast to Northern Ireland in the 1990s: ‘In Northern Ireland we “avoided the void” because we had local knowledge. That’s how you build up to recruiting good agents. At the same time, security services will have to demonstrate that we can take care of the people who help us.’

MI5 clearly does not owe a lifelong duty of care to every occasional informant. Yet it should surely pay its long-term debts to formerly valuable and courageous agents, particularly those who first joined terrorist groups at the behest of the security services.

David Cameron said recently that British resolve ‘saw off the IRA’s assault on our way of life’.The truth is that it was something slightly different from resolve. It was intelligence.

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  • Rik

    Anyone surprised??Translators who fought alongside our troops abandoned,wounded veterans treated with miserly contempt it seems that anyone prepared to risk life and limb to serve the state is valued as highly as used toilet paper.We shame ourselves.

    • Frank

      All of the senior officers (whether MOD, MI5, MI6, etc) should bow their heads in shame – so concerned at securing their titles, pensions, etc, that they gave up on holding their political “bosses” to account.

      • Kennybhoy

        And you know this how? Care to name some names?

        • Frank

          As an example, I think it was Des Browne who, fed up with the moaning from the Chiefs of Staff, organised a meeting for them and the Prime Minister. So they all marched across Whitehall, sat down with their cups of tea and then Tony Blair said something along the lines of “well I understand that you are unhappy with the current military plans, tell what the issue is” this then brought forth lots of “oh no Prime Minister, we couldn’t be happier, etc, etc”.

    • Jackthesmilingblack


    • Cobbett

      Translators…translated. No fighting needed. Besides Afghanistan is big enough to hide in.

  • kaymanaisle

    Such a schoolboy error to illustrate story about mi5 with a pic of mi6’s headquarters

    • amicus

      Yes. Black mark. Bottom of the class.

    • Major_Eyeswater

      Errr… no that is def MI5 on Millbank – try google streetview mate

      • kaymanaisle

        It is now correct but it was not correct this morning. (Ps I’m not your mate)

        • Major_Eyeswater

          ok, thanks mate

    • davidshort10

      I noticed that kaymanaisle posted six hours ago so perhaps the original pic really was MI6’s Legoland on the south bank of the Thames. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Spec got it wrong initially.

    • Malcolm Watson

      How fortunate that the paper edition is not illustrated with a picture. These mistakes are too often attributed to the agency supplying the photograph. Sadly, those employed to post them do not know what they are looking at.

    • Kennybhoy

      Is that all you took from this fine article? 🙁

      • kaymanaisle

        Nothing wrong with the article. But it speaks to its credibility when the magazine seems unable to distinguish between two key organisations.

  • Nic Conner

    Agents! Are we American, I think you mean officers. Agents are people officers run for information. Also the photo is of MI6 not MI5.

    • Kennybhoy

      Once again. Is this all you took from this fine article…..? 🙁

  • Tamerlane

    Uh…you want to check that piccie up top I think.

  • Steve Larson

    Even Mi5 do not have respect for traitors.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    At a guess I would say “Curveball” has muddied the waters.

  • vvputout

    On a par with treatment of Afghan interpreters.

  • WFB56

    A well researched story that the broadsheets should be picking up on as well.

    As usual, Cameron and many others like him, wish to claim credit for some amorphous mass, in this case, “British resolve”, which robs those who truly deserve credit and respect.

  • davidshort10

    Cameron was wrong in saying British resolve ‘saw off the IRA’s assault on our way of life’. First of all, the IRA did not pose a threat to our way of life and secondly it was 9/11 that clipped the wings of PIRA as it then no longer got funds from the misguided American supporters of NORAID. The British sold out its former defenders.

    • so3paperclips

      If you lived in Ni you might have a different view. Also GFA – 1997, 9/11 2001

      • Kennybhoy

        Agreed. But there is some truth in his 9/11 assertion. It did ensure the marginalization of the likes of CIRA and RIRA.

    • sidor

      It was also a huge luck that no one of Kennedy clan became the US president after 1963.

  • Picquet

    It was not ‘resolve’ at all; the only ‘resolve’ shown by the various British Governments involved was to compromise, and mostly in the interests of personal political advantage. Intelligence was the key factor in forcing the Provisional Army Council’s order to PIRA and PSF to discontinue the campaign of violence. Some would believe that there is an unshredded treasure trove of material awaiting exploitation in the event that the current phoney peace becomes unstable. Mr McGuinness and the other leading voices of the gang should not sleep untroubled.

  • Sten vs Bren

    “Security sources have said that this is only half the story, and perhaps it is. Given the nature of MI5, we are unlikely ever to hear the other half”

    Given the nature of MI5, you are unlikely to have heard the first half

  • “When a terrorist group is active in the UK — as Islamist extremists and dissident republicans are at the moment…”

    Islamist? What’s that? Oh, yeah! You’re referring to the Marxist front groups the Marxist co-opted West created it its quest to (1) deflect attention from the fraudulent collapse of the USSR (and East Bloc nations); and (2) bring about the isolation of the United States and Great Britain.

    Dissident republicans? How can such dissidents exist without the approval of the IRA, which itself can only exist with the approval of MI6, as we all know!

    The following is a discovery I made in May regarding the fake collapse of the USSR, and what that fraudulent collapse proves about the institutions of the West…

    When Soviet citizens were liberated from up to 74 years of horrific Marxist oppression on December 26, 1991 there were ZERO celebrations throughout the USSR, proving (1) the ‘collapse’ of the USSR was a strategic ruse; and (2) the political parties of the West were already co-opted by Marxists,* otherwise the USSR (and East Bloc nations) couldn’t have gotten away with the ruse.

    ZERO celebrations, as the The Atlantic article inadvertently informs us…


    For more on this discovery see my blog…



    The West will form new political parties where candidates are vetted for Marxist ideology, the use of the polygraph to be an important tool for such vetting. Then the West can finally liberate the globe of vanguard Communism.
    * The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848(1) thought Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly,(2) so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions. In the case of the United States…(continue reading at DNotice)…


    Now you know why not one political party in the West requested verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the “alternative” media. When determining whether the “former” USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the “former” USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    The fraudulent ‘collapse’ of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Marxists, which explains why verification of the ‘collapse’ was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    It gets worse–the “freed” Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of “Perestroika” (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.

    The above means that the so-called “War on Terror” is an operation being carried out by the Marxist co-opted governments of the West in alliance with the USSR and other Communist nations, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending “War on Terror”; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union “From the Atlantic to Vladivostok”; which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West “lost” China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms, and proving that the Sino/Soviet Split was a ruse, as KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn told the West back in 1962), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.

  • Ron

    Political intrigue is the one guaranteed stable of history. We would like to think people who have spent time as spies would be looked after but the helicopter crash showed how expendable every body is to a politician who has a messiah moment.

  • 29th Division

    What about the guy that knew about American assets used in facilitating the 7/7 attacks and the role of the security services in trying to silence him regarding the ‘engage’ emails.

  • Mc

    There are two lines of work where one is disposable cannon fodder: soldiering and the intelligence services. Something that people joining those professions routinely forget.

    • Kennybhoy

      You speak from experience?

      • Mc

        Fortunately not – through reading the accounts of people in those careers at different levels, as well as the accounts of bureaucrats in charge of those organizations.

  • Oddsbods

    Successive British governments have a long history of ignoring and betraying past allies, you don’t need to keep promises to people who didn’t go to your school.

  • Steed

    For what cost is it to us to keep these people safe? Come on MI5, you’re dropping the ball here.