A new investigation must be set up to examine whether British authorities withheld vital intelligence from detectives hunting the Omagh bombers, a parliamentary report said today.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said too many questions remained unanswered over how much the security services knew about the killers’ movements around the time of the dissident republican attack 12 years ago and if police officers were left out of the loop.
Twenty-nine people, including a mother pregnant with twins, were killed when the Real IRA car bomb exploded in the Co Tyrone market town.
No one has been successfully convicted of the murders, but last year four men were found liable for the bombing in a landmark civil case taken by the victims’ families.
The committee undertook an inquiry into the security services’ role following claims in a BBC documentary that the UK government’s listening station GCHQ had monitored suspects’ mobile phone calls as they drove to Omagh from the Republic on the day of the atrocity in August 1998.
Panorama said this information was never passed to Royal Ulster Constabulary detectives assigned to the case.
While a subsequent review by Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Peter Gibson rejected many of Panorama’s assertions, committee chairman Sir Patrick Cormack said the bereaved still needed answers.
“Far too many questions remain unanswered,” he said.
“The criminal justice system has failed to bring to justice those responsible for the Omagh bombing.
“The least that those who were bereaved or injured have the right to expect are answers to those questions.”
Sir Patrick also criticised the Government for refusing to give the committee sight of the commissioner’s full report, which has been classified for security reasons.
After reviewing the edited summary, committee members agreed with Sir Peter’s claim that information obtained by GCHQ was not monitored in ’real time’ and therefore could not have prevented the bombing.
But it raised concerns about the data flow after the attack, in particular whether names of the suspected bombers were known and, if so, why they were not passed to police officers.
In particular the inquiry said there was a need to establish the part played by RUC Special Branch – the police’s anti-terrorism unit – and whether it was handed data by GCHQ but failed to pass it on to RUC colleagues in the Crime Investigation Department (CID) who were working on the Omagh case.
As well as calling for a fresh examination of the intelligence, the committee’s report also:
:: Found that questions remain about whether the bombing could have been pre-empted by action against terrorists who carried out earlier bombings in 1998
:: Called for a definitive statement on whether the names of those thought to have been involved in the bombing were known to the intelligence services, Special Branch, or the RUC in the days immediately after the bombing, and if so, why no arrests resulted
:: Asked the British government to justify the argument that the public interest is best served by keeping telephone intercepts secret rather than using them to bring murderers to justice
:: Called on the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee to reconsider how any intercept intelligence was or was not used
:: Recommended that the UK government considers providing legal aid for the victims of terrorism if they bring civil actions against suspected perpetrators once criminal investigation has failed to bring a prosecution.
Panorama claimed that intelligence officers had tracked the movements of the bombers’ car and a scout car on their way to Omagh.
However, in his review intelligence commissioner Sir Peter said technology was not advanced enough in 1998 to do that and insisted the vehicles were not being followed in ’real time’, meaning the information could not have prevented the bombing.
“The portrayal in the Panorama programme of the tracking on a screen of the movement of two cars, a scout car and a car carrying a bomb, by reference to two ’blobs’ moving on a road map has no correspondence whatever with what intercepting agencies were able to do or did on 15 August 1998,” he said in his review.
Sir Peter said information on the bombers taken from telephone intercepts examined in the wake of event was passed to police. But he did not reveal whether this data included written transcripts of the phone calls.
He added: “Throughout 1998, before, on and after August 15, GCHQ ensured that intelligence from any interception that might have been relevant to RUC Special Branch for its operational purposes was promptly being made available to them.”
He also said there was no evidence before him that police in the Republic had warned the RUC of a likely attack.
Sir Peter was one of a number of witnesses who gave evidence to the committee during its inquiry.
Others who faced the MPs’ questions included Panorama reporter John Ware, victims’ relatives Michael Gallagher and Godfrey Wilson, former PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde and detectives who investigated the bombing, former Police Ombudsman Baroness O’Loan, and Jason McCue, the lawyer who represented the families in the civil action.
Downing Street defended the decision not to release Sir Peter’s report to the committee.
“The Gibson Review was shared with the Intelligence and Security Committee chairman Kim Howells,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman said.
“Obviously, when national security is involved, there can only be a limited number of people with who that can be shared.”