Informers: Britain’s Frank Costellos

Departed_2I finally got around to watching Martin Scorsese’s The Departed the other day, an excellent film that raises some interesting questions about the role of informers in modern policing.

In some ways The Departed resembles a Cold War spy thriller as much as a gangster flick. It points up the fact that every informer is potentially a double agent, capable of manipulating those he is supposed to be giving information to as much as those he is informing on.

This is the reality that underlies the BBC’s recent attempts to find out how much British police forces are paying to informers, amid mounting concern that the system is open to abuse.

The PSNI was one of the seven forces which refused the BBC’s request, and the recent history of Northern Ireland provides perhaps the best illustration of the range of issues that can arise from the use of informers.

John Stalker became concerned about the RUC’s use of human sources during his abortive Shoot to Kill investigation in the early 1980s. His findings have never been published, although it appears the case may be reinvestigated by the Policing Ombudsman.

In 1989, Pat Finucane was shot dead by informer Ken Barrett, using a weapon supplied by informer William Stobie, and relying on targetting information supplied by a third informer, Brian Nelson.

Other notorious killers suspected of being informers include the UDA’s Torrens Knight and John White, the UVF’s Robin Jackson, and the IRA’s Freddie Scappaticci. It has been alleged that the security forces used loyalist informers to protect Scappaticci by steering them towards Francisco Notorantonio as an alternative target.

Most recently, the Policing Ombudsman’s investigation Operation Ballast found that between 1991 and 2003, UVF informers in one area of Belfast were responsible for ten murders and 72 other crimes. The ombudsman estimated that payments of almost £80,000 were made to the key figure in this group, Mark Haddock.

Raymond McCord Snr, whose complaint about his son’s murder prompted the investigation, claims that the head of the UVF is an informer. Certainly, the sheer extent of the British state’s infiltration of loyalism begs a lot of questions about the nature of the relationship.

Issues around informers are not confined to Northern Ireland though, as some of the BBC’s examples make clear:

Stephen ‘Boom Boom’ McColl – committed two murders while in the pay of Greater Manchester Police

Kenneth Regan – former police informer who was jailed for life in 2005 for murdering a couple and their two young sons

John Berry – Manchester police officers entertained him at pubs as he waited to give evidence in a murder trial which later collapsed (BBC)

There have long been rumours that some of Britain’s leading crime families have had official protection. The Andreas Antioniades case would appear to support this:

Some of Britain’s leading heroin smuggling suspects were protected from police investigations because they were working as informers for Customs, the BBC has been told.

In one case in 2001, Foreign Office diplomats moved to secure the release of an informer held in Germany on a warrant from the Greek authorities. (BBC)

A similar pattern is apparent in the War on Terror:

ONE of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous figures has been revealed as a double agent working for MI5, raising criticism from European governments, which repeatedly called for his arrest.

Britain ignored warnings — which began before the September 11 attacks — from half a dozen friendly governments about Abu Qatada’s links with terrorist groups and refused to arrest him. Intelligence chiefs hid from European allies their intention to use the cleric as a key informer against Islamic militants in Britain. (The Times)

The traditional justification for the use of informers is to use the small fish to reel in the big ones, but in many of the above instances it looks as if it has become a way for the big fish to protect their position.

This situation provides a credible basis for every kind of conspiracy theory, from Conrad-style agent provocateurs to ‘offensive counterintelligence’ operations in which the agent-running organisation is manipulated by its targets.

No doubt, human intelligence is an inevitable part of law enforcement, and the identities of informers have to be protected. However, many of the techniques involved are as old as the hills and well-known to the players involved. There has got to be more room for scrutiny.

Useful measures might include:

– Releasing the details of the total amount of payments made to informers.

– Allowing phonetap evidence to be used in court. To serve the interests of justice, this would have to include the disclosure of evidence that might be helpful to the defence.

Opening up MI5 files to the scrutiny of figures such as the North’s Policing Ombudsman.



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