House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
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W B Gurney & Sons LLP, Hope House,
Telephone Number: 020 7233 1935
Sir Patrick Cormack, in the Chair
Mr Stephen Hepburn
Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Mr Denis Murphy
Witness: Rt Hon Sir Peter Gibson, Intelligence Services Commissioner, gave evidence.
Q121 Chairman: Sir Peter, on behalf of the Committee could I welcome you and thank you for coming this afternoon? You will understand why we are looking at this subject. We were approached by the Omagh Support Group after the showing of the Panorama programme and obviously we felt it only right to see them. We have enormous sympathy for them, because that was the most horrible and ghastly atrocity of all the Troubles and we therefore have a duty to listen carefully. We are totally convinced of their utter genuineness. We have seen the producer of the programme, John Ware. We very much wanted to see you and we are grateful to you for coming. I understand that you would like to say a few words at the beginning before we begin the questioning.
Sir Peter Gibson: If that is permissible. Can I show you the length of the few words? It is two A4 pages. I would like to be allowed to read the whole of it, because I am hoping that it may forestall some lines of questioning. I may be over-optimistic, I recognise.
Q122 Chairman: Please carry on. We do not normally have such long opening statements but in these circumstances I am perfectly happy to have them.
Sir Peter Gibson: Thank you very much. On
Q123 Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for that, Sir Peter. You will appreciate, as we do, that this is a delicate matter because we have not seen your full report. We have made requests repeatedly to the Prime Minister that I as Chairman should on behalf of the Committee be allowed to see the full report, and those requests have been refused. The Committee is very concerned about that because, as I said at the beginning, this is the most appalling atrocity in all of the Troubles. We are the Committee charged to look into these matters by Parliament. I appreciate that this is not your decision and it is no criticism of you at all, but we are very concerned that we have not been given that opportunity. We did not ask for it for the whole Committee; the Committee asked for it for their Chairman so that I could reassure people - we hoped. However, I am not in that position and, as my colleague Mr Fraser says, it was a unanimous view of this Committee. We will not go into that now but what I would like to know, without transgressing on the territory that you say you cannot stray into, is this. How many pages does the full, unclassified report contain in comparison with the 15 pages of the published summary?
Sir Peter Gibson: My secretary and I have a little disagreement as to the length of it. I would say it was about four times as long as the summary report.
Q124 Chairman: About four times as long. In other words, it probably runs to about 60 pages.
Sir Peter Gibson: Something like that, that is right.
Q125 Chairman: Of which we have 15.
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes.
Q126 Chairman: Can you guarantee to this Committee that there is nothing in the classified material which supports the concern among the Omagh families about whether those who carried out the bombing could have been quickly identified and arrested in the immediate aftermath? You will understand that they have asked us this question; we are not able to answer it because we have not seen the full report. Can you give that assurance?
Sir Peter Gibson: I can and do.
Q127 Chairman: Without any equivocation?
Sir Peter Gibson: Without any equivocation at all.
Q128 Chairman: When we come on to your inquiry, you interviewed 24 people. What criteria did you use in deciding which 24 individuals you would interview?
Sir Peter Gibson: I sought help from those in a position to give me help. For example, the PSNI suggested a list of people in the police or former members of the police whom I should interview. I interviewed all of them save for one person who was not willing to be interviewed. As I went through my interviews, other names were mentioned and I followed up all those names. There is a point in Mr Ware's evidence which I am afraid is simply not correct. If necessary, I can go into that. It was a rolling programme of people I was interviewing. On the securities service and GCHQ side, I started again in much the same way. They suggested people who would have information that was likely to assist me. They also provided witness statements in many cases. Again, I was not content just with that. As I went through the evidence, it seemed to me I ought to interview some other people and again I had that opportunity, which I carried out. Apart from another policeman, who again would not wish to be interviewed, I do not believe there was anyone whom I wanted to see whom I did not see - either see or speak to.
Q129 Chairman: Just two quick follow-up questions from that. The two policemen who refused to give evidence to you - would you have liked to have had the power to compel them to give evidence to you?
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes.
Q130 Chairman: But of course you did not have that power.
Sir Peter Gibson: I did not have that power. This was a private inquiry.
Q131 Chairman: Indeed, I appreciate that, Sir Peter. Were there any people who offered to give evidence whose offer you declined?
Sir Peter Gibson: I am not aware of anyone, no.
Q132 Chairman: Mr Ware obviously did not entirely enjoy his encounter with you, from the way he described it to us. We can make no comment on that because we were not present, but he told the Committee that he was given an inadequate opportunity to supply answers on matters of detail. Is he justified in saying that?
Sir Peter Gibson: No.
Q133 Chairman: Could you amplify on that?
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes. I interviewed him towards the end of my inquiry. I did not send him questions in advance because it was obvious that I would be asking questions about his programme. He indicated to me that he had not done any revision, as it were. He refers in his evidence to you mention of things like algorithms. That certainly was not mentioned by me. I was simply trying to ascertain from him those matters which were contained in the programme which he was able to speak to of his own knowledge; because some things in his programme indicated the source of the information; others he was silent about. So I was trying to ascertain the extent to which he had information which I would be able to assess.
Q134 Chairman: Before I move on to Kate Hoey, could I just ask you one final question from the Chair at this stage? I explained that the Committee was unanimous in wishing me to see this report and the Prime Minister turned down that request. Were you actually consulted on that request?
Sir Peter Gibson: No.
Q135 Chairman: Had you been consulted, what would your advice have been? Would you have objected?
Sir Peter Gibson: I personally would not - if I was to lay aside all thoughts about security and secrecy, because, if you will forgive me saying so, I do not know all your backgrounds and so on. I would have been delighted that as many people as possible should see the full report, so that they could see for themselves the extent to which chapter and verse had been provided.
Chairman: Thank you very much for that. I much appreciate and I think that the whole Committee appreciates that very frank answer.
Q136 Kate Hoey: Following on from that, is it not possible to produce this report with more detail in it, in fact the entire report, with just some bits blanked out for public perusal?
Sir Peter Gibson: As I said in my opening statement, there were real difficulties in producing a summary report. The matters that are dealt with in the report are for the most part of the highest sensitivity. All the police would tell you that. It is therefore extraordinarily difficult to fillet, other than to say the conclusion: which is on the particular allegations within the terms of my review, which I found simply not backed by evidence. So, I am sorry - one always prefers that one's full statement should be made available. It is like a judgment where a summary is given and one would like everyone to see the full report.
Q137 Kate Hoey: I know that you mentioned it in your statement, but it was quite long and perhaps we did not all take in every word of it. The Omagh Support and Self-Help Group, when they saw us, were very concerned that they did not even get an acknowledgement to the fact that they had asked for an interview and details of your terms of reference. I understand that they could probably have got terms of reference from somewhere else, but did you know that they had written to you?
Sir Peter Gibson: No, not at all. The first I knew about it was when I saw the transcript of what had been said in front of you. I had not understood that they had asked for anything more than what Mr Gallagher had told you, and that was simply the terms of my review.
Q138 Chairman: Would you have seen them, had they asked?
Sir Peter Gibson: I think I would have questioned what was the benefit to be
obtained. I share entirely with you
my abhorrence of what occurred in Omagh on
Q139 Kate Hoey: Sir Peter, I am trying to clarify. Are you saying that you do not think they wrote a letter? I would imagine that someone like you does not have your letters interfered with or checked; so I assume it did not go to the right place or it went to somebody else who intervened. What is your view on that?
Sir Peter Gibson: I simply do not know. I do know, because I have heard one website criticise me, that I do not have a website and there is no address given for me; so I am frankly curious to know what was the address at which Mr Gallagher thought he would find me. But my secretariat has received nothing.
Kate Hoey: I think it does raise a number of interesting questions, that a letter that has gone to you, presumably at an address that Mr Gallagher knew ---
Chairman: I do not doubt the total probity of both our witnesses. I am sure Mr Gallagher sent a letter. I am equally convinced - and you have a reputation for courtesy - that you did not receive it.
Q140 Kate Hoey: I appreciate that, Chairman. I am just saying that, in view of what this is all about, and that we are dealing with intelligence services and with all of these things, it does seem very strange that no one seems to know where a letter went. Anyway, you have not had the letter and you have said that, even if you had had it, you might not have seen them. Can I ask you one further question, just to get it on the record really? Are you absolutely clear that there is nothing that any better intelligence that was there and what you saw could have made a difference? In other words, is it clear that the Omagh bombing could not have been prevented by the better use of any of the intelligence that might have existed at the time?
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes.
Q141 David Simpson: Sir Peter, can I touch on the alleged "live" monitoring of the telephone contacts? Did GCHQ monitor specific mobile phone numbers relevant to the bombing at the request of Special Branch and, further to that, was any such monitoring carried out "live"?
Sir Peter Gibson: Forgive me if I appear evasive but I do not think I can answer that consistently with what in the technical jargon is the "NC..." - I can neither confirm nor deny. I fear I cannot answer that, much as I would like to.
Q142 Chairman: Are the answers to that in the full version of the report?
Sir Peter Gibson: Of course, yes.
Q143 David Simpson: It is in the full report?
Sir Peter Gibson: Absolutely.
Chairman: This is why we find it so unsatisfactory. This is no criticism. I repeat this. It is not your fault, but we do find it so difficult that I have not been able to see this, so that I can tell my colleagues. They would accept my word; I know they would. It is not that we do not accept yours. You must not feel that. Nobody is questioning your integrity at all, but we do feel at a disadvantage.
David Simpson: Working in the dark, Chairman.
Chairman: Yes, we are; but we are grateful to you for the clarifications. Could I move on to Stephen Hepburn?
Q144 Mr Hepburn: Could I ask you a question about the Panorama programme? The Panorama programme obviously had a tremendous impact after this terrible tragedy. Having done your report, what is your view of the Panorama programme?
Sir Peter Gibson: I am very reluctant to stir things up further. As the Chairman has commented, Mr Ware thinks he was treated badly by me and I really much prefer not to answer that; but, if you press me, I am afraid I think the BBC got it completely wrong.
Q145 Mr Hepburn: Just for the record, are you satisfied that all the relevant intelligence that was passed from GCHQ to Special Branch was done in line with the procedures but also as efficiently as possible?
Sir Peter Gibson: As efficiently? I am sorry?
Q146 Mr Hepburn: As efficiently or expeditiously as possible.
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes. I say so, I hope expressly, that there was nothing that was not fully - again, subject to this not confirming or denying intercepts and so on - but there was nothing that was not passed fully and quickly to Special Branch, the designated recipient of any information from GCHQ.
Q147 Mr Hepburn: Then why did it take CID something like nine months to trawl through literally millions and millions of telephone records, mobile phone records, to try and trace a suspect device?
Sir Peter Gibson: That you will have to ask Special Branch. I repeat what appears in my report. I did not look into the reasons why Special Branch acted cautiously - I use the adverb "cautiously" to describe what occurred. I saw the people in Special Branch who were in office at the relevant time. So far as I can judge from the quite lengthy interview I had with them, they are men of integrity. I deliberately did not go into questions like why certain things were done or had to be done.
Q148 Mr Murphy: Do you therefore think it was a mistake that part of your inquiry was not actually to ask the question why they acted cautiously?
Sir Peter Gibson: No, if I might say so. If I had been asked that, I am far from certain I would have undertaken the inquiry at all, because it seemed to me that was inevitably going to lead into questions about whether the police acted properly, well, non-negligently - things like that. Once you go down that path - and I have seen it in my career at the Bar and judicially - you open the door to legal procedures and requirements. For example, if you criticise any person in a report, the practice these days is to send a draft to that person; that person then raises queries on the report. The whole procedure is lengthened very considerably. The Prime Minister wanted to know how quickly I could produce a report. It could not have been produced in anything like the timescale that I followed had extra questions such as that which you have asked been the subject of my review. Also - if you will allow me to say this - no documents were produced relating to what Special Branch was doing at the relevant time. They may have had various activities ongoing. I know not. But the search for the truth would have been that much more difficult - and it is ten years, as you know only too well, since this awful happening.
Q149 Mr Murphy: Given the enormity of Omagh and the very fact that the inquiry was limited to the parameters you have outlined, nevertheless this really does go to the heart of whether indeed, as you say, Special Branch acted in the cautious way it did. That implies to me that Special Branch did not do all they could at that particular time. Surely it begs the question that that should have been part of your investigation? If it was not then, do you think it would achieve anything reopening the investigation on that particular part?
Sir Peter Gibson: I have adverted to the difficulties in finding the truth in relation to that matter. If, as I have been led to believe, there are no documents, you are relying only on memories; so I am not confident that it should have been investigated in that way. Certainly, if a judge does it - particularly one with my background as a Chancery judge and a Court of Appeal judge, where I do not deal with crime - I would not have begun an inquiry like this without assessors. So you are bringing in experts who would evaluate what it is that Special Branch were doing at the time and why it was that they behaved so cautiously. You are second‑guessing decisions taken some ten years ago. I repeat, that is very difficult.
Q150 Mr Murphy: It is but, given your background - and I am sure that you always choose your words very carefully - why did you put that phrase in? "Special Branch acted in the cautious way it did."
Sir Peter Gibson: Because it was that, as you will have seen from the paragraph where I set out the limits of what was handed over, the information was not very extensive. I implied no more than that.
Q151 Christopher Fraser: Given what you have just talked about in relation to Special Branch and what they were doing, can you tell us this? Did they specifically request intelligence on intercepts before the bombing?
Sir Peter Gibson: This is Special Branch?
Q152 Christopher Fraser: Yes.
Sir Peter Gibson: I set out in my report the function of GCHQ and it was in effect to assist the police, through the agreed mechanisms, in the performance of their duties. Again, I must be cautious as to what I can say about what their instructions were, but you will know again from what I say that GCHQ's speciality is signals intelligence.
Q153 Christopher Fraser: Are you able to tell us whether there were any requests by Special Branch to GCHQ in the hours immediately after the bombing?
Sir Peter Gibson: Again, I am struggling to give you as full a reply as I can without going into the area where I said I would not go. Perhaps I can put it negatively. I am not aware of any request made by Special Branch to GCHQ that was not complied with.
Q154 Stephen Pound: Sir Peter, I realise that it has already been said a couple of times but please forgive me for repeating it. It is a great pity that we are having to put you through this. We are very grateful for your coming today and I hope you will forgive me for saying that, were the Chairman able to see the unredacted report, we would all have been spared this. I know that I speak for my colleagues on my side of the Committee when I say how much I regret this. Could I ask you a question that I am not sure you can answer but it is something that interests us greatly. When GCHQ provides information to Special Branch, how does it then reach Special Branch itself? Does it go directly to them or is there a mechanism whereby GCHQ, both before, during and after Omagh, provides routine intercept intelligence? Does it go to Special Branch generally or directly to Special Branch South?
Sir Peter Gibson: I think I say somewhere that it goes to Special Branch South directly and RUC headquarters. There is no sort of filter, if that is being suggested, or anything that holds it up. Indeed I have referred to the fact that the answers come, if there was a telephone communication - that is to say, GCHQ speaking on the telephone to Special Branch, that part of Special Branch which is deputed to receive information - that is done immediately.
Q155 Stephen Pound: Is that standing operating procedure? Does that happen in the normal course of business, if I can use that expression?
Sir Peter Gibson: You may be able to infer the urgency which would accompany such a communication. Again, I am sorry to repeat it. GCHQ is there to provide information which Special Branch want. Special Branch are treated as the experts; not GCHQ. GCHQ provides the information that is requested and, as I have indicated, they do so fully and in a timely fashion. Of course, if there are other things to be done, like typing things out, then there may be some delay; but no significant delay occurred.
Q156 Stephen Pound: It tends to be raw data that is not highlighted in any way that is passed from GCHQ to Special Branch, and they then decide whether to extract from that or transmit it in toto. Is that correct?
Sir Peter Gibson: That is right. It does not stop GCHQ from making comments.
Q157 Stephen Pound: Indeed not, but surely Special Branch had to get clearance from GCHQ before they could pass any of this data to CID? Would that not slow the process down quite significantly?
Sir Peter Gibson: There is bound to be extra time needed in order to comply with those procedures, yes.
Q158 Stephen Pound: My colleague earlier on raised the question of the nine-month time lag in analysing the telephone numbers. Have you any idea what the normal timeline is for CID clearance to be obtained from GCHQ by Special Branch?
Sir Peter Gibson: No, I really cannot say what is normal or not normal.
Q159 Stephen Pound: I appreciate that normality is not the issue here.
Sir Peter Gibson: GCHQ is treating Special Branch as a customer; so it is trying to do what the customer wants. If the customer wants something done urgently, it can say so. If it wants further information, it can do so.
Stephen Pound: I have not heard that analogy since the high days of New Labour, but ---
Chairman: I am not sure that is relevant!
Stephen Pound: I think that is really as far as I can go with that. I thank you for your courtesy.
Chairman: I do find all of this rather like having to examine Shakespeare having only read Lamb's Tales! Could we bring in Dr McDonnell?
Q160 Dr McDonnell: I am listening to your evidence there, Sir Peter. I am very impressed and I get the clear impression that GCHQ did its job; but the question I keep asking myself is what was the point of all the monitoring if, somewhere or other, it was going to get lost between up there and down there? Am I correct in arriving at the conclusion that either rivalry or malfunction somewhere within the Special Branch allowed all this useful work to go astray?
Sir Peter Gibson: Without being specific about the points on which complaint has been made, you will know from the reports, the post-bombing reports, that you first had the Parliamentary Ombudsman for the Police making certain criticisms about Special Branch not passing things on. The monitoring has to be done, of course, by GCHQ if GCHQ's assistance is sought. A great deal of it may be done by other agencies, such as the RUC itself. The purpose is to put into the hands of the specialist, Special Branch, what is being monitored. You are asking a different question when you are asking about the transmission of information from Special Branch to, say, the investigating team. That is a matter for them; it is not up to GCHQ.
Q161 Dr McDonnell: All your evidence - and I find it very clear and very helpful - is that GCHQ did its job and produced the information as requested and whatever failure happened happened further down the line. Is there any suggestion - perhaps this is all outside your terms and your remit - that there was rivalry or competition or whatever?
Sir Peter Gibson: I only know what I saw in reports, the post-bombing reports. As you will appreciate, the Parliamentary Ombudsman specifically asked for a separate investigation into the procedures of Special Branch and that resulted in the Crompton Report, from which I cite in my summary report. Again, I am repeating myself, but that refers to complaints and suspicions between the two branches of the RUC; so it would look as though there was that failure to communicate.
Q162 Dr McDonnell: I have bafflement, sitting here, taking all your evidence at genuine face value. It strikes me as bewildering why the Special Branch should seek monitoring and seek reports and then not pass that detail on. That is the difficulty we have, sitting here: it is to get our heads round this. It is unfortunate. GCHQ would appear, on the surface of it and on your evidence, to have done its job and to have done it correctly. I think that you have made it very clear to us that GCHQ has a technical role. It is not the judgment or the assessment of the evidence; it is the generation of the technical support, if you like. The bafflement here - and again I think this affects families and everyone else involved in Omagh - is why was all this work, costing a fair amount of money, not put to some use?
Sir Peter Gibson: Special Branch would have to answer for itself, but they were in one sense the people gathering intelligence by asking GCHQ to provide it, by seeking it by their own means, and they no doubt had their own particular reasons. I know not whether there were disruption activities going on or what it was that was preoccupying Special Branch.
Q163 Chairman: Sir Peter, the people who refused to give evidence to you - you said to the Committee very frankly that you were sorry they refused to give evidence - were they Special Branch?
Sir Peter Gibson: No. One was on the investigating team. The other was Special Branch, yes, but he did not lead a team.
Q164 Chairman: Had that gentleman from Special Branch agreed to give you evidence, do you think you would be in a better position to answer the questions that you have just been asked by Dr McDonnell?
Sir Peter Gibson: I doubt it. It would have been nice confirmation for me if what I had heard was in fact the truth. Obviously one wants as much confirmation as possible, if someone comes up with a bit of evidence ---
Q165 Chairman: Which is what we are seeking, obviously.
Sir Peter Gibson: Yes.
Q166 Kate Hoey: I appreciate that you have done a huge amount of work on this and it took a long time, and the whole thing must have been quite stressful. At the end of it all do you think that, on reflection, looking back, the Prime Minister might have chosen a different way of dealing with this? In the end, has your report, of which we have of course only seen 15 pages, done anything to help? We still have nobody who has been found guilty; we still have grieving families; we still have no real answer. What actually did it achieve?
Sir Peter Gibson: I hoped it would have achieved the exoneration from these very serious charges. At least, that is how I would read it. I know Mr Ware differs from me. He says that GCHQ, for example, was not in the firing line at all. I am wholly unable to see what was said in the Panorama programme and agree with him on that. I agree that that is not very satisfactory for the families and others who want the people who did this behind bars as quickly as possible. So to that extent it has not achieved, as you have suggested, all that much, particularly if those who see my summary report are not convinced. It is very difficult to convince people who feel as deeply as they do.
Q167 Chairman: Sir Peter, I feel very much in sympathy with you and I just feel
that, if only we could have seen what you had written, we might be totally
convinced by it. You strike me as being
one of the fairest witnesses we have had before us and we are grateful to you,
but we do regret the constraints. Do you
think that it is correct to infer from the fact that arrangements for the dissemination
of intelligence to detectives investigating crime in
Sir Peter Gibson: Forgive me for trying to clarify. You are questioning...?
Q168 Chairman: We are told that the arrangements for the dissemination of
intelligence to detectives investigating crime in
Sir Peter Gibson: I do not know the details of the PSNI's internal procedures
governing what should be passed to the detectives and investigating team; so I
am in a bit of difficulty in giving a fair comment on that. Plainly there was huge dissatisfaction
amongst a large section of the police about this. I have heard even in this country similar
sorts of complaints about the relation between Special Branch and other parts
of the police. Whether that is true or
not I cannot say, but in Northern
Q169 Chairman: It does indeed. Sir Peter,
we are all of us very grateful to you.
You have done your best within these difficult constraints. We are constrained because we do not know
what you wrote. Only a quarter of it has
been published and is available for us.
We are of course also - and this is why the Committee was happy to
delegate to me the task of looking at the report - very conscious of the
sensitivities, and we are very conscious of the fact that we all depend to a
great degree upon the integrity of our security services. This Committee is the last body that would
wish to publish information that could in any way endanger the security of the
Sir Peter Gibson: I do not, I am afraid, see what I can add. You are aware that the ISC has seen what has ---
Q170 Chairman: Yes, indeed, which makes our frustration and dissatisfaction even greater.
Sir Peter Gibson: Whether you take comfort from their attitude, I know not.
Q171 Chairman: Sir Peter, on behalf of the Committee thank you very much indeed for your courtesy in answering questions and the way in which you have sought to answer them. We are very unhappy, as you will obviously have gathered, but that unhappiness is in no way your fault.
Sir Peter Gibson: Thank you, and may I thank you all for being so courteous in your questions to me. A great relief, I can assure you!