Cops hatched media strategy to counter Operation Torsion stories in press

The PSNI adopted a top-level media strategy in order to “distract attention” away from news reports about the existence of the Special Branch’s Operation Torsion – the operation which was used to promote allegations of a so-called ‘Stormont spy-ring’ in October 2002.

That’s the explosive conclusion of a confidential report prepared by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, in response to a complaint by Chief Superintendent Bill Lowry – the Special Branch officer who led Operation Torsion – over the circumstances in which he left the PSNI.

The revelation comes in an updated paperback version of the book ‘The Armed Peace’, written by the BBC’s Security Editor, Brian Rowan.

In the revised book Mr Rowan states that in a curious twist Special Branch itself was apparently concerned about leaks emanating from the ongoing investigation that were allegedly coming from a source other than Bill Lowry.

Mr Rowan also states that Special Branch secretly obtained information about internal Sinn Féin discussions during the Weston Park talks in July 2001 which was then passed on to MI5.

This ensured that the British government’s negotiating hand was strengthened against republicans during the crucial talks on policing and decommissioning.

In hindsight, therefore, these revelations put the SDLP’s decision to join the Policing Board in August 2001 – just four weeks after the Weston Park talks – into an entirely new context.

Republicans are expected to highlight the political nature of the Special Branch spying activities as yet more evidence that, in the words of one, “a cartel of political policing detectives are still pulling the strings”.

And the latest objective assessment by the Police Ombudsman that the PSNI tried to “distract attention” away from news reports over the existence of Operation Torsion could also have political and legal implications.

Half the original charges brought by the PSNI’s REMIT team in relation to Operation Torsion have now been dropped, with the key charge of ‘possessing documents of secret, confidential or restricted nature originating from government offices’ completely withdrawn by the Crown prosecutors.

Of the four local people arrested in relation to Operation Torsion, one has now been completely exonerated, and the other three accused – Denis Donaldson, Ciaran Kearney and William Mackessy – are scheduled to face reduced charges at a trial that is not expected to commence for another twelve months.

Given the charges brought as a result of Operation Torsion, it is ironic that Mr Rowan’s revelations are sourced to a ‘confidential document’ that was only privately circulated amongst three agencies by the Police Ombudsman – namely, the Secretary of State, the Chief Constable and the Policing Board.

It is also noteworthy that Mr Rowan was, in fact, the journalist who first broke the story about Operation Torsion in BBC news reports on November 12, 2002.

The PSNI’s attempts to “distract attention” away from his reports involved convening a press conference involving the current head of REMIT, Chief Superintendent Phil Wright, and the then Assistant Chief Constable for Belfast, Alan McQuillan, to talk about other aspects of their activity in the case.

Shortly afterwards Mr McQuillan announced that he had instigated a leaks investigation within the PSNI. And REMIT Inspector Michael McErlane later told a court that officers within the investigation were asked to disclose all details of their contacts with the press to an internal inquiry.

The outcome of the leaks investigation established by Alan McQuillan has never been made public.

‘The Armed Peace’ carries interviews with key political figures, statements from the IRA leadership, and a full breakdown of recent political developments including David Trimble’s rejection of the IRA initiative last October and the Assembly election results of last November.

• The Armed Peace by Brian Rowan (updated, paperback) is published by Mainstream Publishing, price £9.99.

Journalist:: Jarlath Kearney

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