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A Perfect Spy



Tom Luby • 23 December 2005

In an effort to minimise the damage that British agent Denis Donaldson has wreaked on the Provisional movement, SinnFein apparatchik Jim Gibney used a recent Irish News column to describe his former colleague turned traitor as a mere "listening device" who never suggested an original idea and was not close to Gerry Adams.

Donaldson, he went on, "was not part of the small group of people in the national leadership of Sinn Fein who developed the peace process".

In other words Donaldson was on the fringe of the leadership and his usefulness to the British lay not in steering the Provos towards peace or whispering MI5-generated ideas into the Big Lad's ear but in picking up the odd bits of gossip that would come his way and passing them on to his handlers. A useful source in other words, but no Freddie Scapaticci.

Nice try, Jim, but not good enough! Common sense and a basic understanding of spying tradecraft suggests that Donaldson was not a "listening device" but rather a "checking device" whose job, amongst other things, was to help confirm the accuracy of intelligence being generated by more highly-placed agents inside the Provisionals' decision-making bodies - very possibly in that "small group of people in the national leadership of Sinn Fein who developed the peace process" which is otherwise known as the Adams Think Tank.

Denis Donaldson was not, as Gibney correctly asserts, ever a member of the Think Tank but in his position just below the Think Tank, as one of its fixer, fetchers and carriers, he was in a perfect position to tell his handlers about Think Tank decisions and policies that he had been tasked, with others, to implement.

So, for example, when Donaldson was the IRA's representative in New York his job was to carry out tasks and put in place policies and personnel, or sideline them, as directed by the Think Tank, which had a direct say over the Provisionals' direction in the United States. Donaldson was not involved in formulating Think Tank policies but he could tell his British handlers all about them and in the process confirm other intelligence streaming into the offices of MI5 and the RUC Special Branch.

The importance of Donaldson's unmasking therefore lies not just in the fact that he was a British spy for some two decades but that his existence strongly suggests that there were other, more highly-placed agents in the Provos and that these people most certainly would be able to come up with "original" ideas, get close to Gerry Adams, whisper into his ear and help steer the Provos towards the peace process.

It goes without saying that agencies like MI5 and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch try to recruit multiple spies when targetting a particular branch of their enemy's organisation and the reason for that is to remove as much uncertainty as possible about the intelligence being passed on.

Where this is not possible the consequence is often paranoia, distrust and division. In the 1960's the CIA's counter-intelligence division was almost destroyed by its chief, James Jesus Angleton who came to regard every Soviet spy working for the CIA as a potential double agent. Angleton's problem was that the CIA had so few human agents inside the KGB that it was unable to check the authenticity and reliability of the assets it did have. Knowing this the KGB sent over the odd false defector to muddy the waters and soon Angleton's counter-intelligence division was paralysed by doubt, unable to trust any of the CIA's agents.

Angleton's fate is the nightmare of every spy agency but for MI5 and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch there has been no such problem with the Provisionals. Thanks in part to the doctrine of the long war and the fact that many IRA volunteers served more than one term of imprisonment a large reservoir of vulnerable, potential agents was at the disposal of the British.

The evidence that the British were able to recruit multiple agents in whichever part of the IRA was being targetted comes from the story of the IRA's most sensitive section, its security or counter-intelligence department. The security department had unprecedented powers thanks to its mandate to root out informers. It was allowed access to every part of the IRA and investigated every operation that went wrong. No-one knew as much about the IRA as its security department and it was therefore the prime target for British intelligence.

There were at least two known informers inside the security department - Brendan Davison and Freddie Scapaticci - and there are very strong suggestions that its head was also working for the British. Whatever, the fact is that the British had a number of well-placed agents inside the IRA's most sensitive section, who could tell their handlers almost everything there was to know about the IRA and lead the British to scores of other vulnerable recruits - and the British could use each of them to check the reliability of the others and the accuracy of their information.

Common sense suggests that a very similar situation probably existed with Denis Donaldson and that apart from whatever information he was able to pass on, his real value lay in his ability to verify and confirm intelligence coming from other, higher sources.

It is this aspect of the affair that has made the Donaldson saga such a nightmarish ordeal for the Adams' leadership for it could well mean that there are other real and undiscovered "agents of influence" in the Provisionals' upper reaches.

It was of course the job of the IRA's security department to root out people like Donaldson but thanks to the fact that almost the entire security department was working for MI5, the RUC/PSNI Special Branch or British military intelligence that was never going to happen. Which raises another question, perhaps the most important one of all. Why were the same people allowed to run the security department for years on end? Why weren't they replaced at regular intervals so as to minimise the damage just in case some turned out to be British agents? Why was this elemental rule of counter intelligence flouted?





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Index: Current Articles

24 December 2005

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A Perfect Spy
Tom Luby

Anthony McIntyre

Spies and Lies in 2005
Eamon Sweeney

Defeating the Enemy Within
Mick Hall

SF Tinker, Tailor Their Spy Story
David Adams

Language: The Means of Creating Realities
David Kirk

Mebyon Kernow & Cornish Nationalism
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Timetable for Change
Dr John Coulter

CRJ — New Name for the IRA?
Anthony McIntyre

GEM, A Story of Global Exploitation and Misery
Morten Alme

First International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners and POWs
Irish Freedom Committee

Brian Campbell: A Captivating Voice
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Who's In Charge Around Here, Anyway?
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Dr John Coulter

RSF Presidential Address 2005
Ruairi O Bradaigh

To Go On: Irish Travellers meet Academia
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Genius decommissioned while Stupid keeps the guns
Tomas Gorman

Cut Off Aid to Regime in Uganda
David Adams

Sticks and Stones
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