Last September, the Irish Republican Army scrapped its arsenal and ended its long, bloody campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. The disarmament was a response to many things—progress made by its political wing, Sinn Fein; slackening of American funds after 9/11; and the many reforms triggered by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, to name a few. But even as all these events unfolded publicly, in the shadows a devastating cancer had metastasized within the IRA's leadership.
As the British government realized in the mid-1970s that it was fighting a tenacious and increasingly lethal terrorist organization, it adopted new, top-secret counterinsurgency tactics—and began an all-out infiltration of the IRA's rank and file. A furtive military intelligence outfit, the Force Research Unit, created a network of spies and informers, undercover British agents and well-bribed IRA men. Bit by bit, lie by lie, they built an insidiously effective operation—one that was so successful that it's credited with crippling the IRA's once-impregnable leadership, and so secretive that, although the program's existence has come to light, some of its top operatives are thought to still be working, undetected, in the field. It was also an operation so morally fraught that recent revelations about it have sparked a state criminal inquiry and spurred legions of interest groups to demand accountability from Downing Street.
For more than a decade, this "Dirty War" raged, with the British government handing bundles of cash to its clandestine informants, many of whom were still killing and plotting for the IRA. There was a perverse logic to this: the more they killed, the more their brothers in arms trusted them—and the better the intelligence they could provide their British handlers.
One of the agents on the British payroll for much of that time was a man named Freddy Scappaticci, whose nom de guerre, "Stakeknife," has come to serve in the British press as shorthand for the whole affair. Scappaticci is now in hiding. Another agent, now known by the name of Kevin Fulton, was trained as a British soldier before being offered a covert position as a spy within the IRA. He rose through their ranks and eventually became one of the IRA's deadliest bomb makers. He too is in hiding.
In The Atlantic's April cover story, "Double Blind," Matthew Teague relates the tales of both these men. He follows them through their childhoods in Northern Ireland, down the very different paths they traveled into the IRA and the world of espionage, and, finally, to their climactic final meeting in a Belfast safe house in 1994: two IRA men, two British spies, one likely to die. The author managed to track down Fulton and met with him several times recently in London, eventually earning his trust.
Teague is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, and elsewhere. We spoke by phone in mid-February.
You got extensive access to a source in hiding from terrorists. Can you explain how you got in touch with Kevin Fulton, who's a former British spy and high-ranking IRA bomb-maker?
I got in touch with a colleague of his who worked in British military intelligence with him during his days as a spy. He passed messages back and forth between Fulton and me for about a week and a half, until eventually Fulton agreed to meet me at the train station. The story was something I had been thinking about for a while. I noticed some articles about it in the newspapers on a previous trip to the U.K.—the codename "Stakeknife" jumped out at me. It stuck with me for a while—the idea of these men, spies, who have to make policy on the fly, who are sort of one-man colonies. Where the weight of a whole country's moral decision-making is on their shoulders in a moment of duress.
Once you got in touch with Fulton, was he pretty amenable to meeting with you?
Yeah, we met at the train station and stayed around there and took a little walk. We met just briefly and he was really jittery and vaguely suspicious. But, after meeting me a few more times, he sort of got used to seeing me and everything slowed down a little bit. He opened up.
He opened up quite a bit; I mean, he disclosed a lot of pretty damning information to you. He all but admitted that he had had a hand in many murders. What did you do to earn his trust?
I think just showing up is a big part of it. I asked him at one point why he was talking to me about all these things and he said that he hasn't been allowed to have therapy—or that the government hasn't paid for therapy for him because it would be a kind of admission of all of the things he's done. So I think it was sort of a relief for him to talk to anybody—even a magazine writer—about this.
You mention that he was jittery the first few times you met him, and in the article you describe the many precautions he takes to keep out of sight and low key. But he's also been quoted a lot in the British press—to the point where he might be considered a bit of a publicity hound. If he's afraid for his life and stays in hiding, why does he keep this high media profile?
I can't read his mind and I don't want to try, but I think he feels abandoned by the British government and that this is his way of revealing all the things that happened – both good and bad. He wants people to know what happened, but he doesn't necessarily want to be known as an individual. I believe that I'm the only reporter he's ever actually had to his home.
The man you describe in the piece seems pretty vulnerable—and as you just mentioned, he might view talking to people like you as almost therapeutic. But he's also a guy who's pretty wise in the ways of espionage. How do you know that he wasn't abusing your trust in him?
He's not vulnerable immediately. It took a long time, a lot of hours together walking around the city and talking, just sort of growing closer, before he started to reveal that side of himself. At first he was a pretty hard-shelled guy. And it's true that I couldn't be sure at first that he was being straight with me; once he started opening up, the things he was talking about seemed absolutely outrageous. As a reporter, I kind of kept one eyebrow cocked until I started tracking down the details. And every single detail checked out, down to the most minute peripheral details, such as his trip to New York. Everything was confirmed.
Regarding that trip to New York, he actually makes an extraordinary claim—that the British military helped and even encouraged the IRA to build more sophisticated bombs, and that they set up this trip for him to go to New York to buy infrared triggers for them. Can you explain how you were able to check that out?
Sure. There were several ways. One was just checking the physical things he described. He described the Murray Hill Inn, for instance, the place where he stayed. It's still there, just as he described it. Another is that he referred to an F.B.I. agent as being involved. So I called the agent and he confirmed his involvement, although he couldn't discuss details or accuracy. Thirdly, he described the deportation of an Irish man in Queens which had resulted from a meeting with him during that trip. And the INS records show that the man was deported exactly the way Fulton described. So everything sort of triangulates. It really happened.
For other people, you weren't able to check in such great detail. For instance, you interviewed Denis Donaldson, another famous IRA leader, in his living room. And you only discovered later that he had been a British agent for twenty years. Did you ever get the feeling that everyone you talked to could have been a double agent?
I did, and I asked Fulton at one point. I said, is there anybody in the IRA who's not a British spy? And he just sort of held out his hands and he said, "You tell me." I think that cuts right to the heart of the British strategy. They interwove themselves so profoundly with the IRA that it became hard to distinguish between the British and the IRA members. And by that point you've diluted the movement, or at least seeded mistrust so deeply that it just can't stand anymore.
You got a lot of information out of Fulton, but did he indicate that there was more to the story—things that he was still hesitant to reveal—despite all that he already told you?
He did. There have been a series of revelations about higher and higher ranking IRA men who were British spies and Sinn Fein men and I wouldn't be surprised to see it go even higher.
Why did he hesitate to divulge everything to you?
Because I think he knows that he needs to keep some things closer to his vest. I think it's a sort of insurance policy for him.
Freddy Scappaticci, who was also a British spy, and who was one of the top members of the IRA's internal security squad, himself fled Northern Ireland and hasn't been heard from since 2003. How did you dig up information on him?
I talked to people who worked with him, and with his lawyer, read different newspaper accounts. I just sort of pieced things together from what I could find. Freddy led a really public life outside the IRA. He was a huge supporter of soccer and things like that, so his name would pop up in various accounts from time to time connected to those involvements. But when the announcement was made that there was the existence of this agent "Stakeknife," he eventually just disappeared completely.
Any idea where he's hiding?
It varies. Some people say he's in Northern England. A lot of people say he's in Italy. It's really impossible to say. He could be moving all the time.
At one point you say of the British infiltration of the IRA that, as messy and morally dubious as it may have been, "There's this: it worked." There are a lot of factors that led to the IRA's disarmament, which you acknowledge in the piece. What convinced you that it was this covert dirty war more than anything else that led to the IRA's downfall?
The IRA was always a military organization: it's the Irish Republican Army. It was never meant to be a social program. The weight behind the IRA was military. That was the leverage that it had—its danger. So if you dull that edge with spies, as the British did, you force the Republicans to shift their weight somewhere else. Specifically, now it's shifting toward political efforts with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein and the IRA go back a long way as the two fronts of the Republican movement. It forces them to use one and not the other.
As more information emerges and people become increasingly aware of this network of spies and informers, how do you think it will affect the peace process in Northern Ireland?
It's a blow. It's a blow each time it happens. It unravels the progress. For instance, when Denis Donaldson was revealed to be a spy it almost collapsed the entire peace process because his work was in the heart of the Northern Irish Parliament. It showed that the British were so mistrustful that they had placed a spy there to constantly disrupt Parliament affairs. I think it seriously eroded the trust of a lot of people in Northern Ireland.
The Stevens Inquiry, which has been investigating state cooperation with paramilitaries since 1989, has yet to lead to any prosecutions. Can the British government fairly investigate members of its own security forces in this case? Or do you think an independent commission is necessary?
To be honest, I just don't know. It makes sense that any time there's an investigation of misdeeds by a party it requires a look from the outside. So an independent investigation makes sense. I'm not trying to cast aspersions on the Stevens Inquiry, but some people do regard it as sluggish and ineffective.
You entered this story without having covered this conflict before. And I think you developed a very balanced article. Did you find it hard to paint an unbiased picture, especially since you interviewed people who had experienced a lot of pain—and who had in some cases lost close family members? Were you tempted to take sides?
It switched back and forth. You spend time with a Loyalist family who's suffered some awful tragedy and your heart sort of swings behind them. And then the same thing happens when you're with a Republican family who's lost a daughter or a son or whatever. It just breaks your heart as well. I've noticed this in other places I've been as well—like Algeria and Sri Lanka. As an outsider, you step into the midst of this fray where local factions are fighting. And just because they hate each other doesn't mean they hate you. The people in Northern Ireland are some of the kindest people you could ever want to meet and some of the most sympathetic. That's the tragedy of these things. You feel like, if both sides are such agreeable people, it's just awful that they can't seem to see each other that way. Sometimes things would happen that would swing me one way or the other. One was the realization that all of this graffiti I had been seeing everywhere, "KAT," meant "Kill All Teagues"—"Teagues" being a slur meaning Catholics. They pronounce it the same way they pronounce my last name. That's pretty intimidating if you just imagine K-A and then whatever your last initial is and it's painted on all the walls all around you.
When people heard your last name is that what they associated it with?
Oh yeah. Yeah. The only saving grace was that I was an American. I had an American accent—as a matter of fact a Southern American accent, which I think really confused people. But it was intimidating.
Why do you think there's been so little attention paid to this story in the U.S.?
Sometimes there's complacency among Americans about what happens beyond our borders—though less so in recent years. Frankly, that's why I wanted to do this story--because I myself am just realizing the impact of what happens on the other side of the globe. A more specific reason is that what the British did is really an ugly, ugly thing, and I think people in America know that we are facing some of these decisions too—hard decisions. Here's a case where our allies, the British, who we think of as just and fair and good, are engaging in things that are questionable. You can decide for yourself whether those things are worthwhile. They're certainly hard to look at. So that may be one reason why people have been reluctant to focus on it. It makes us face what's happening out there and recognize that it's happening to real people. These aren't actors on a stage—these are mothers and brothers and sons and daughters and fathers.
Do you think there are lessons in this story for coalition troops in Iraq? Do you think we can infiltrate the Iraqi insurgency without risking our souls?
Interviews: "The Secret History" (June 13, 2005)
Caroline Elkins, the author of Imperial Reckoning, talks about unearthing the sinister underside of Britain's "civilizing" mission in Kenya.
That's the heart of this story, I think. It's about us, as much as it's about the British. I suspect that in the short term infiltration works, in that it helps you penetrate and undermine a specific organization, whether it's the IRA or al Qaeda in Iraq. Long term, the methods of penetration are so duplicitous that you create a terrible perception of yourself. For instance, the British did penetrate the IRA and they did undermine it through duplicity. But everything comes out in the end. Denis Donaldson, for instance, all of these decades later, is revealed to be a spy and it undermines all of the work that the British have done. And so it is a quandary—it really is.