Did the tapped conversations of McGuinness and Adams prove the IRA genuinely wanted peace?

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The Independent Online
THE PRIMARY rule of espionage is simple: "Don't get caught." The shadowy forces that bugged a Sinn Fein car used by its leader, Gerry Adams, broke that rule yesterday, leaving the Government flat footed behind a fig-leaf of non-denial and the Sinn Fein president sputtering with righteous indignation.

The Government's blanket refusal to comment on "security matters" left little room for doubt about who was responsible. The unanswered questions last night were "why?" and "how?". The "why" is relatively simple. Your chances of getting what you want from negotiations increase a thousandfold if you know what the other side are thinking. You can say what they want to hear.

Even if, as it was said yesterday, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness did not use their bugged Ford Mondeo for many journeys to the Northern Ireland peace talks, the fact that they used the car much more frequently for meetings with IRA high command made the device worth its weight in gold.

Hearing Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness discussing how they would deal with their IRA counterparts must have been like manna from heaven for British officials conducting the peace talks. British intelligence officers - and their ministers - would have enjoyed a vital insight into Republican thinking at a critically important moment in the talks, when they needed to know whether Sinn Fein and IRA were serious about decommissioningweapons, or were simply stringing the Unionists along. Such information could have persuaded Tony Blair "to go the extra mile for peace".

It was by no means a new strategy. MI6 tried to bug Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when he visited Britain in 1956. That was scuppered when MI6 frogman "Buster" Crabbe died mysteriously under the President's warship. And during the Lancaster House talks over the future of Rhodesia in 1979, British intelligence secretly taped the other side's private conversations.

It is not the first time that Sinn Fein has discovered bugging devices during the peace process. Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Fein official, claimed a house used by his party in the early days of the peace process was bugged.

The matter of "how" the bugging was done is as complex as the "why" is simple. The tracking and listening device found in the car used by Mr Adams was described as "very sophisticated" by a former military intelligence officer with experience in Northern Ireland. He had little doubt that it was the work of British intelligence.

It appears to consist of a "geo-positional satellite", or GPS, tracking device and a radio to transmit anything said in the car. "These devices are available separately but to put them together this way is a very clever package," he said.

The year-old Mondeo belongs to an associate of Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness and is one of a number the two Sinn Fein leaders use. The device was carefully wired up in the bowels of the car. Whoever installed it must have taken many hours and carefully refitted the car's innards. The microphone was wired into the middle of the roof of the car.

There are suggestions that the Mondeo was "borrowed" overnight by the security forces to fit the device. However, the former military intelligence officer doubts this, pointing out that taking a car known to be used by Mr Adams for such a length of time would be extremely difficult. He suspects that the device might have been fitted into the car before it was delivered to its new owner a year ago. According to Mr Adams, the device was designed to switch on with the car ignition to prevent it draining the car's battery.

Technical experts working for Mr Adams said after a close look at the equipment that the main box had an output of 20-30watts. The listening device could be turned on or off remotely via an input aerial. The GPS tracking system had rechargeable batteries wired to the car battery. According to Sinn Fein, "All of this was done in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone carrying out repairs on the vehicle to find the device."

It is likely the device was made and designed at a secret British intelligence base near St Albans which specialises in covert devices of this type, according to intelligence sources.

The GPS device would have sent messages via satellite to a British intelligence base in Northern Ireland, probably in Lisburn. It is similar to GPS navigation equipment used by ocean-going yachts for navigation and by security companies like Group 4 to track the movements of their armoured cars. Journeys in Sinn Fein's car could be watched on a special screen. The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) recently offered these type of screens for sale at a security show.

The co-ordinates of each trip could be stored on computer which would automatically search for patterns - regular journeys at regular times. As the car travelled around the computer would instruct the hundreds of cameras placed around the province at border crossings to record its journey.

How the radio transmitter worked is not yet clear. It might have been a converted cellular phone. But this would be subject to the same reception problems as a normal mobile phone. It's more likely it would use the "databurst" system designed for MI6 officer in "hostile" countries. Agents record the information they want to transmit into a compressed signal. Rather than then walking into the local British embassy and risk interception by hostile security officers they drive past and send the databurst via an aerial on the windscreen into the embassy's sophisticated radio room.

The advantage of databurst system is that they are a lot less likely to be revealed if Mr Adams had his car "swept" for bugs. A constant signal would have been a give-away.

Likewise, the device could store conversations digitally and be programmed to transmit only when good reception is guaranteed. Similar tracking and listening devices are believed to have been used on the UK mainland, mostly by MI5 tracking drug barons. Last year, Tommy Adams of the North London crime family was jailed for smuggling tons of cannabis, largely on the basis of conversations in a taxi he used which were recorded using a less sophisticated but similar device.

The irony of the matter was that if this was a British intelligence operation it will have been legal. The Northern Ireland Emergency Act 1996 gives permission to the security forces to do almost anything they like including burgling and bugging.

There are few surprises left in a process that has seen secrecy, duplicity and huge risks on the road to the province's elected assembly and, it is widely hoped, lasting peace.

Michael Ancram, now the chairman of the Tory Party, privately tells friends about a chilling experience he had as a senior Northern Ireland minister the night he went to a "safe house" - a priest's house - to meet the IRA in secret talks about a possible cease-fire. As he left, alone and unprotected, he wondered whether there would be a crack of gunfire and he would be shot.

Such a meeting required trust on both sides. Trust is at the heart of the peace process. Yet the discovery of the bug in Mr Adams's car is a clear, if not totally surprising, signal that for some involved in the peace process, trust is not yet enough.