UNTIL soldier PIN 8625 stepped into the witness box in Craigavon Court on January, 21, 2011, it was a closely guarded secret that the security services had at least one suspect in the killing of Constable Stephen Carroll under surveillance on the night of the murder.
Then Chief Constable Hugh Orde had only publicly revealed three days before the murder in March 2009 that he was requesting the assistance of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR).
Sir Hugh insisted the special forces unit would have “no operational role” in Northern Ireland. He said: "We are talking about a very small number of people who increase my technical capacity.
``They have no operational role.They support my policing operations, which are undertaken by my police officers."
However, a former soldier with detailed knowledge of undercover operations has challenged who is really in control of intelligence in Northern Ireland.
The SRR’s presence in Northern Ireland was, and continues to be, shrouded in secrecy. Despite Sir Hugh’s public statement that he was only requesting the assistance of the regiment on March 7, 2009, evidence had already emerged in a previous court case that the specialist army unit had been operating against dissidents in Northern Ireland at least two years before that.
In October 2008 nine members of the unit gave evidence in the trial of three Co Armagh dissidents convicted of possession of a mortar bomb near Lurgan in March 2007.
At that time then Secretary of State Shaun Woodward issued public-interest immunity (PII) certificates banning the soldiers or their unit from being identified.
PII certificates also banned any mention of the elite unit’s tactics or technical capabilities.
The SRR soldiers gave evidence to the trial via satellite from Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were stationed.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the court the soldiers were part of an elite special forces unit “capable of carrying out difficult and dangerous surveillance activities”.
He added: "The number of special forces is only a small fraction of the total number of soldiers in the army and the number with the particular skills of the soldiers in this case is only a small fraction of the number of soldiers in special forces.
“Their skills are rare and highly valued.”
The court heard it cost £200,000 to train each soldier in the unit.
It was the first time in more than two decades that a British army special forces member had given evidence to a Northern Ireland court. It was also the first public acknowledgement that special forces units were being used to target dissidents.
What is known about the SRR is that it was first formed in 2005 to replace the old 14th Intelligence unit and Force Research Unit, which had been created in the 1970s, specifically for operations in Northern Ireland.
`Martin Ingram’ is a former member of Force Research Unit, who served 10 years in Northern Ireland and was attached to G2 intelligence at the British army headquarters in Lisburn. He uses the pseudonym ‘Martin Ingram’ to protect his real identity, which is known to The Detail.
He had `level 1’ security clearance to access secret intelligence from RUC Special Branch and FRU – as well as MI5 and MI6 material.
In 1990 he was posted to Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) headquarters in London where he held an Enhanced Positive Vetting (EPV) position, working mainly on British army intelligence interests in Israel and Syria.
Highlighting the identical roles which 14th Int and now SRR undertake in the targeting of dissidents, he said: ``It’s changed because we’re in a different technical period, but they perform the same duties which are surveillance.
``It can form a variety of tasks.
``If it’s electronic surveillance it can be the implantation and the recovery of technical devices. ``It will also involve the surveillance of a human being, whether that’s on foot or by motor vehicle.’’
SRR has no control of dissident informers.
``These are extremely experienced soldiers, who are trained in the same fashion to the Special Air Service (SAS), but operate in a different role.’’
In a telling insight into the numbers and modus operandi of SRR operations in Northern Ireland, he said: ``Given that the present threat is relatively low, I would expect a very small element to be deployed within Northern Ireland, given the pressures of the army throughout the world in other theatres.
``I doubt very much whether there is more than 20 or 21 personnel.
``They are unlikely to be spread across Northern Ireland, as the jobs would be more targeted these days.
``They will be centrally located.
``Their major resource is their skill set.
``They are experienced surveillance operators who have access to the best GPS tracking equipment and other surveillance equipment.
``The advantage in the last 10 years in the miniaturisation of tracking devices is absolutely vital.
``You can now put a GPS on a 50 pence piece, it’s relatively easy.
``The major problem that terrorist organisations have (now) is the advance in the technical capability which is being used against them.’’
Describing claims that MI5 and SRR would allow the PSNI unfettered access to their intelligence operations as ``utterly laughable’’, the former soldier said: ``The SRR are no different than any other intelligence agency, whether that is a specialist handling unit or the surveillance operators.
``They are responsible, in regards to republican terrorism, exclusively to Box 500 or MI5 as, they are more commonly known.
``That is the organisation that directs the resources which are required by the commander at that particular time to counter the threat.
``That is what they’re asked to do and they will not be reporting, when we are discussing republican terrorism, to the PSNI.’’
Ingram also claims Chief Constable Matt Baggott would only be given limited access to intelligence gathered by MI5 and SRR.
``Clearly he will have some knowledge of the current operational effectiveness of MI5. But because he is not responsible, and has no primacy in that area, he will only be fed what other people or other agencies want him to know.
``The bottom line is, when you have no primacy you have no responsibility, it’s as simple as that.’’
The former intelligence operative also poured scorn on Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s assurances that there are stringent security protocols to ensure MI5 does not act outside the law in Northern Ireland.
He said: ``Frankly there’s very little oversight of Box 500 or MI5, it’s as simple as that. ``There aren’t any effective checks and balances and the reason for that is very simple. ``When you’re working in a terrorist environment we’re not really playing to what you would understand to be democratic rules and regulations.
``In regards to the police having access to MI5 intelligence, it would be accurate to say that is a barefaced lie and highly improbable.
``It’s probably spun for political reasons.’’
But the former intelligence officer was also skeptical about claims that the surveillance device used to bug John Paul Wooton’s car had been accidentally wiped.
He added: ``In regards to the tracking device being left on a shelf and a soldier going on leave – well in my opinion that is an absolute lie.
``Whenever an operation is mounted and information is collected which is of intelligence value, then it becomes a classified document in the same sense as it would be if a report is published and it is accounted for in exactly the same way.
``The army is extremely careful and bureaucratic in the way it accounts for sensitive and classified material. There is always an audit trail.
``Put simply, it would be absolutely laughable that a soldier has come back to base and gone on leave and then come back and a classified document has gone missing.
``That’s something which may end up in a comedy show and bares little resemblance to the reality.’’
Questioned whether he believed that the security services would be prepared to withhold key evidence from the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service, Ingram was adamant.
``Would MI5 be prepared to withhold intelligence, the straight answer to that is, yes.
``It’s their intelligence, it’s not the PSNI’s.
``They’re not responsible for republican terrorism, but MI5 is.
``Therefore MI5 has control over what is disseminated and what is not and the PSNI has no right to that information, for very good reasons.
``They have been shown in the past to be unsafe custodians of that sensitive and classified material.
``To answer your question, would MI5 be prepared to withhold intelligence from the PSNI? Absolutely, unequivocally, with no ambiguity – yes.’’