UK's FBI, NCA, Spying on Journalists and Recruiting Them as Spie

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UK's FBI, NCA, Spying on Journalists and Recruiting Them as Spie

Post by TonyGosling »

Spying on Journalists and Recruiting Them as Spies

The Upsetter Apr 07, 2024 Michael Gillard

Recent revelations that the Metropolitan police spied on two investigative reporters examining state collusion with paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland has caused The Upsetter to examine the various covert means used to identify journalists’ sources.

Of course, pulling a reporter’s phone records isn’t the only tool in the police’s digital armoury.

Sadly, there are those in our profession who while pretending to be journalists are betraying confidential sources and spying on their own colleagues for a supplementary stipend of thirty pieces of state silver.

In this dispatch, The Upsetter reveals how the National Crime Agency, Britain’s FBI, recruits journalists to become paid informants or, in cop speak, Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS).

This newsletter can report such a thing with authority because over sandwiches in a central London hotel the NCA once asked The Upsetter to be their man on the inside.

“Nobody would ever, ever know,” the handler insisted, including the London organised crime boss the NCA was immediately interested in.

But first, to Northern Ireland, where the Met and two other police forces have been caught spying on journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.

The role of the Met is currently being explored by a panel of surveillance judges. While we wait to hear their views, former police insiders in Belfast and London offer an insight into how these things get done.

Barry McCaffrey (l) and Trevor Birney (r) outside court.

On 18 June 1994, a pub in Loughinsland, County Down was full of drinkers watching Ireland play Italy in the World Cup when three Loyalist gunmen indiscriminately emptied their automatic weapons killing six Catholic men and injuring five others.

Twenty-three years later; so after the peace process, the disbanding of the RUC and creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, McCaffrey and Birney made a documentary about the still unsolved massacre.

The RUC had promised the victims’ families it would leave ‘no stone unturned’, which became the ironic title of their film. It examined evidence of state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries - the Ulster Volunteer Force - to explain the RUC’s failure to find the killers.

In the new Northern Ireland, with its new police ‘service’ and new ombudsman to keep them in check, there was no pat on the back from the security establishment for this public service.

Instead, the frighteners were put on the two journalists for daring to expose to the world some uncomfortable truths already well known to the dead men’s families and to anyone living through the dirty war in Northern Ireland.

In August 2018, police carried out dawn raids on the homes of McCaffrey and Birney and tossed them into cells while their files and electronic devices were seized from offices in Belfast.

The pretext being that the reporters had obtained a document from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which was referred to in the documentary, and must therefore have been stolen.

The ombudsman reported the alleged theft of the document to the PSNI who got Durham police to investigate because of the conflict of investigating their own regulator.

In 2019, the top judge in Northern Ireland slapped down both forces with a rebuke over the “inappropriate” search warrants. He told the PSNI to return the seized material and said the journalists had acted entirely properly in protecting their sources.

Supported by the National Union of Journalists and other press freedom campaigners, the two reporters complained to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a group of judges in London who secretly examine surveillance abuses by law enforcement agencies and the intelligence services.

Not unreasonably, McCaffrey and Birney wanted to know if the PSNI, MI5 and GCHQ, the government’s listening station, had turned their surveillance powers on them and if so when, why, what had been hoovered up and was it lawful.

In July 2023, almost four years later, the pair learned that the IPT had been examining in secret two separate police surveillance operations targeting McCaffrey that took place years before his involvement in the No Stone Unturned documentary.

This February, the IPT adjourned a public hearing before it got underway because of late disclosure, running to 1000 pages, from the police about what they had been up to.

It turns out that between 2011 and 2013, the PSNI had asked an obliging Met to pull McCaffrey’s phone records to identify his sources.

The reporter had received a leaked report detailing concerns that the Ombudsman was in effect too close to the PSNI. He’d also been tipped off about an internal PSNI probe into a member of staff getting a bung over a contract.

Of course journalists are not above the law if a crime has been committed, but the act of journalism is not a crime, and that is what the police, spooks and politicians forget when we expose their failings or corruption.

There are judicial procedures in place to stop cops going on fishing exercises or misusing the law to investigate journalists for investigating them. These procedures are there to protect a journalist’s sources and reduce collateral intrusion.

The police can make an application to a judge for a Production Order with the journalist able to argue their case against disclosure.

The PSNI, Durham police and the Met did not go down that route. Instead, they took the backdoor into McCaffrey’s digital life using an internal police process called the Communications Data Application to get his phone records, emails and Whatsapps.

As the reporter recently wrote:

Neither Trevor Birney nor I were the ultimate target of these spying operations. The ultimate aim was to identify and intimidate all journalists and their sources. That is not only an attack on freedom of the press, it is an attack on democracy.


In the early 2000s, the cream of the Met’s anti-corruption squad, aka the Untouchables, were seconded to the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.

The Home Office appointment perpetuated the illusion the Untouchables had done a good job for Londoners and would do the same for Londonderry, when in fact these anti-corruption busters had excelled at protecting the Met.

The Untouchables’ culture was one of self-righteousness - ‘doing God’s work’ they called it. And God said it was sometimes OK to look the other way or break the rules in the name of pretending to leave no stone unturned.

A senior police officer in Northern Ireland during the transition from the RUC to the PSNI in 2001 was happy to share with The Upsetter his memories of when the Untouchables came to his town.

The source, though defensive of the RUC, was under no illusion it had at times got up to no good.

Although he was quick to point out that coppers on the take from organised crime was much more a feature of the Met because there wasn’t that type of drug cash sloshing around Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’.

He suspected the Untouchables of bypassing legal controls in Northern Ireland for getting into someone’s phone if they felt it was necessary.

“The system to get itemised billing, to get anything to do mobile phones, was you need a warrant, certainly to intercept someone. But, because there were so many requests, there was an agreement between the Association of Chief Police Office, as it then was, the Home Office and the telecoms industry.”

The agreement allowed a superintendent access to a person’s itemised billing only with written certification that the investigation involved ‘a serious arrestable offence’ that would lead to at least a 3-year prison sentence for an offender with no prior criminal history.

With that piece of paper the telecoms industry would provide the billing data for a fee. “Calls out were not difficult, but calls in were ten times more expensive,” the source said.

On occasion a PSNI superintendent would refuse to do the Untouchables bidding because it did not meet the threshold of a 3-year offence on first conviction. The source suspected this was when the Met’s Telecoms Intelligence Unit would step in.

All police forces have a liaison unit that deals with the phone and internet companies. The Met has two. A smaller one exclusively for the Untouchables anti-corruption work, and another for all other proactive policing.

The concern, then, is two fold. Coppers are by-passing judges by using an internal process to get a journalist’s phone data.

Secondly, they can find a tame superintendent to sign off requests where the journalist’s alleged criminality and implications for national security are greatly exaggerated.

A retired senior officer who worked in the Met’s anti-corruption unit did not discount such complicity, but said it would be wise to have “top cover”. In other words cast iron proof you were following orders if things went bandy and ended up at the IPT.

Of course, there is another way to get inside a journalist’s contact book that doesn’t require doing phones and emails, bugging cars or raiding newsrooms.

One of the less commented on revelations that came out of the 2012 Leveson public inquiry into media standards was how some national newspaper reporters, mostly in the crime and investigation side of things, were registered informants.

The News of the World’s chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, revealed how he worked for the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), a forerunner of the NCA, and also for MI5.

‘Agent George’ gave his NCIS handlers “leads on drugs, guns and sex crimes” that his news desk had rejected and introduced undercover officers to organised crime gangs he had infiltrated.

The arrangement wasn’t for money, Thurlbeck stressed, but for “back up” in tricky situations and police intelligence, such as criminal record checks and the odd number plate reversed.

It was the closest the press and the police could ever get, he remarked, and apparently justifiable because it helped him land scoops for the tabloid and protect his job in a dog eat dog newsroom.

When it came to working for the spooks, however, Thurlbeck’s motivation appears to have been more patriotic. There was no symbiosis. “The information highway was strictly a one-way street,” he said, from the reporter to the spy.

How often Thurlbeck was tasked to find out information and what about remains undisclosed. The spooks apparently offered him a full time job, but he turned them down because it would have meant a salary cut!

Some big beast journalists, but mostly columnists, are paid ridiculously large salaries for their words of wisdom.

But, in general, journalism is a poorly paid job and it is getting worse with youngsters ignoring traditional media, the on-going crisis of trust and a decline in advertising revenue.

Low pay, therefore, is likely to be a factor in why reporters agree to become informants. The starting salary is in the early £20,000s and the average wage in London for an experienced hack is in the mid-£30,000s.

Like cops in cocaine producing counties, where low salaries make it easier for drug money to corrupt, low paid journalists with access to any kind of inside information are vulnerable to approaches from the cops and spooks.

There is already a trend of journalists abandoning the job for better pay and conditions working for private intelligence gathering and reputation management firms.

That would be fine if they didn’t continue to pretend to be journalists or documentary makers as cover to infiltrate people for their less than fragrant clients.

The case of Rob Moore, who infiltrated the anti-asbestos movement for Kazahk mineral tycoons and was exposed by The Upsetter and New Matilda in a 3-part series published in 2018, shows how that system operates, even now.

There are some in journalism who you can easily imagine being a CHIS or MI5 lackey. There are others who you would never suspect.

It’s fair to say that over 25 years writing about policing, organised crime, corruption and national security The Upsetter’s relationship with law enforcement has been adversarial.

There were no hand outs for positive coverage, no bs senior management briefings, no authorised leaks of sensitive material to show anti-corruption efforts in a good light and no invitations to early morning raids to make the war on drugs look like victory.

Instead, there has been surveillance, an assault in open court, smears and in 2000 a wedge-driving letter to The Guardian editor, later boasted about to the Leveson Inquiry by the corpulent senior anti-corruption officer who helped write it.

When it came to trying to discover The Upsetter’s sources, the Met and NCA have resorted to leak inquiries, where the option of digital rape was on the table.

A leaked document about one leak inquiry was too heavily redacted to determine whether this was followed through. But if it was, it certainly didn’t involve a Production Order in front of a judge as The Upsetter was not invited to any hearing.

The period between 2010 and 2015 was particularly antagonistic as The Upsetter was defending an article in The Sunday Times about the battle for control of some Olympic land, which led to the first public outing of David Hunt as a leading organised crime figure.

Just before the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) transitioned into the NCA in 2013, it sued this reporter and The Sunday Times to recover a leaked report on the Hunt organised crime group and to prevent use of it and other police documents in the forthcoming defamation trial the gangster had weirdly brought.

The judge tied the newspaper’s hands on use of the SOCA document. But Hunt still lost in July 2013.

The following May, The Upsetter was two days away from publishing an article on NCA corruption linked to the Essex-based gangster, when the agency’s anti-corruption boss gave a formal warning that the Hunt organised crime group was looking to cause this reporter serious injury.

A previous risk assessment by the Met had come to the conclusion that the risk of harm was “high” but was likely to materialise in the “middle to long term”, a period in time that, helpfully, could not be defined.

Two days after the article was published on 25 May 2014, the NCA threatened to prosecute if documents about the corruption probe were not returned.

The Sunday Times stood firm against this good cop, bad cop routine and encouraged further reporting.

In 2015, an article was underway about Hunt having evaded prosecution in 1999 for slashing the face of associate Paul Cavanagh because the victim had been paid to withdraw his evidence.

Paul Cavanagh displays the scar in 2015

The detective inspector who ran the stymied Met investigation was emailed to see if he wanted to contribute to the forthcoming article. By then, Tim Smales had retired from the Met and was working for the US Embassy. He politely declined to help.

Cavanagh, however, had co-operated and also agreed to be filmed describing the day he was slashed and why he took £25,000 to undermine the prosecution of Hunt.

Shortly before publication in June 2015, an unsolicited email arrived in this reporter’s inbox at The Sunday Times. It was an offer to meet the NCA.

Given the recent past, it was unlikely the NCA was offering an inside track on any steps being taken against the Hunt crime group. The most likely explanation was this was ‘an approach.’

Still, you never know in our game. So after some tedious spy craft around Covent Garden, to ensure no one was following, a meeting took place at the Hampshire Hotel in Leicester Square.

There, in a basement were two burly men, one tattooed in jeans, the other straighter looking in a suit. Coffee appeared, sarnies were on the way and, as expected, Tattoo and the Suit began their approach.

It was explained in heavy northern accents that Tim Smales had alerted someone “high up” in NCA security that The Sunday Times was about to publish “A1” information and knew where Cavanagh was living.

This was passed to a deputy director and a decision taken to try and recruit The Upsetter as a CHIS.

“We work as source handlers, that’s what we’ve done for years,” said Tattoo. The Suit reassured that their 6-year partnership had been “very successful” and “nobody would ever, ever find out” about this meeting or any subsequent CHIS relationship.

The Upsetter reminded them about leaked documents and the recent story involving NCA officers said to be in Hunt’s pocket.

“There’s a reason why two cockney lads aren’t sitting here with you,” Tattoo replied. “We’ve no links down here, to the Met.” It was because of the “smell of corruption” around Hunt that the higher ups had decided to send their best men from the north.

And then this:

“We do speak to journalists, they do help us covertly. It’s a bigger level of authorisation, it has to go right to the top. It’s a massive thing for us to do.”

Bigger still for a journalist.

There is no imaginary “code” that criminals often say has been broken when justifying their grassing.

In our case, there is a code of conduct, and thy shall not secretly work for the state is an implicit part of the deal we make with the public.

Tattoo was told to pass on to his higher ups a firm rejection of the offer to become a CHIS. They could read all about the Cavanagh investigation with the rest of the public in The Sunday Times.

“No hard feelings,” said NCA man.

Since that Tuesday in 2015, relations have returned to where they belong - polite but adversarial.

And so it goes.
gillard untouchables.jpg
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