An FBI agent who infiltrated dissident republican terror organisations was told to hand over smuggled beer kegs to use in bombs, a court heard today.
David Rupert, the US spy testifying at the trial of Michael McKevitt, claimed his handlers helped him buy a pub in Co Leitrim in June 1996.
At the time Mr Rupert, aged 51, had become a close associate of Joe O’Neill, described as a senior member of Republican Sinn Fein.
Mr Rupert told the Special Criminal Court that after he started running the Drowes Bar in Tullathan, Mr O’Neill approached him about a number of empty beer kegs that supplier Guinness would not be prepared to take back.
He said: “In republican circles they often use hand language in lieu of saying bomb or bomb casings or shootings.
“Joe’s hand language for bomb was such (making signal). By indicating such, I understood he wanted to use them for bomb casings.”
Mr Rupert said he took down the serial numbers of each of the kegs and passed them on to a senior garda officer, Dermot Jennings, who had become his contact in case any were used in an explosion.
The double agent, who was paid a total of $1.25m (€1.08m) by US and British intelligence services to investigate the rogue republican groupings, is the key witness in the case against McKevitt.
The accused, aged 53 and from Blackrock, Dundalk, Co Louth, is the first person ever to be charged in the State with the offence of directing terrorism.
He is also standing trial on allegations that he is a member of the Real IRA, the organisation behind the August 1998 Omagh atrocity which killed 29 people and two unborn babies. McKevitt has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
On the second day of his evidence, Mr Rupert, a striking 6ft 5in tall man weighing more than 20 stone, told how he made several visits to Ireland after first being approached by FBI agent Ed Buckley in Chicago in an attempt to breach the dissident republicans.
He had previously worked with the US agency in an operation during the 1970s centred around the drugs trade in New Jersey.
But after the approach by agent Buckley in 1994 he began to focus on Republicans such as Mr O’Neill and Vincent Murray.
His relationship with Mr O’Neill became particularly strong, as he accompanied him to fundraising functions across Ireland.
At one of these events in Dublin during Christmas 1994, the veteran republican was handed an envelope containing $10,000 (€8,650) in cash from a Boston contact, Mr Rupert told the court.
“Joe didn’t want to be carrying this in case we were stopped at a road block and he would have no reason for carrying $10,000 in cash,” he said.
As the spying operation intensified, Mr Rupert decided to sell up his trucking business and move with his wife at the time, Maureen, to run a pub in Ireland.
“It gave a greater access to the republican community and I could be in a casual situation where you could have an exchange of conversation so it didn’t appear as though you were interested in certain subjects, being intelligence,” he explained.
After FBI chiefs gave the plan the green light, Mr Rupert and his wife returned to Ireland and with the help of Mr O’Neill they identified the Drowes Bar.
The agent’s wife had given up her job as a truck stop manager and with the aid of cash from the FBI, the couple made the switch.
The pub was located beside a caravan park used mostly by people from Belfast and Dungannon in Northern Ireland who were closely linked to Provisional Sinn Fein, the court heard.
Mr Rupert said: “I usually make reference to it as my IRA theme park.”
Mr Rupert said that when he returned to the United States he received an offer of a contract from the FBI.
He decided to accept it saying: “My options were limited. I took the FBI up on their contract.
“What they were looking for was to make me an intelligence asset and for me to travel to Ireland and to try to sort out the associations between the money that was being gotten in the US and where it was winding up, how it was funding terrorism in Ireland.”
He said that under the terms of the contract he would received $2,500 a month which he described as “extremely minimal”, considering what he had earned before.
Shortly after his contract began with the FBI, Joe O’Neill asked Mr Rupert about shipping a number of items from the US to Ireland.
He said: “He broached me on the subject of obtaining Semtex, detonator cords and detonators and proceeded to tell me how to ship them.”
Mr Rupert said he found this extremely upsetting.
Mr O’Neill suggested that Mr Rupert put the Semtex inside teddy bears, the detonator cords inside skipping ropes – as they were hollow – and the detonators inside radios.
“It concerned me because I had to make a number of trips across the Atlantic,” he said.
“I was wondering how many fools were putting this stuff in luggage on the plane I was travelling on.”
Mr O’Neill gave him the address of a school in Ballyshannon where his sister was a teacher.
He said that during his work for the FBI he never sent any of these materials as requested.
He then told how British intelligence were also interested in him working for them.
Mr Rupert said: “They asked if I had any qualms over working with them.
“I believed at the time I made a quip about how I was a whore and would work for anybody but I was being facetious because I wouldn’t work for anyone that was looking to serve any bad purpose.”
Up to this stage all of the agent’s briefings were face to face with his bosses but he later came up with the idea of using e-mail to file his reports.
He took an encryption programme, learned how to use it and from then on sent encrypted e-mails jointly to the FBI and the British security services.