An undercover MI5 agent has told a Belfast court how the security services were able to secretly record and video three men allegedly discussing a failed attempt to murder police as well as tactics of dissident republicans.
However, even before he was sworn in at the city’s Crown Court, counsel for the trio, 51-year-old Colin Francis Duffy, 50-year-old Henry Fitzsimons and 57-year-old Alex McCrory, said they intended to challenge the audio evidence allegedly obtained.
Counsel told trial judge Mr Justice O’Hara, sitting alone without a jury in the Diplock-style trial, that they would be seeking to exclude the three audio exhibits which he said were “at the core of the prosecution case”.
The three men face a number of terror-related charges arising from a gun attack on police in north Belfast in 2013.
The covert audio recordings captured in a public park in Lurgan, known as Demesne Park, were made in December 2013 under the codename ‘Contraction’. A video of the scene, codenamed ‘Succinctness’ was also made, as was a second video made at the entrance of the Forest Glade area, designated as ‘Idealistic’.
Mr Justice O’Hara was told that the defence had put the prosecution “on notice” in relation to the integrity of the audio recordings as there were allegedly question marks surrounding their providence and handling before they reached experts for examination.
A prosecution lawyer revealed that a separate undercover operation was also carried out in Santa Ponza with the assistance of Spanish authorities.
However, after giving evidence screened from the main body of the court by a blue curtain, guarded by a plain-clothed policeman, the M15 technical officer with the PIN, or personal identification number 9281, refused to give any details surrounding the actual workings of the various audio, and in particular, video devices.
Time and again 9281 told counsel: “I am not sure I can answer that on national security grounds.”
At one stage counsel put it to the officer: “If I asked you any question on the functionality or capability of any of these devices, will the anwer be the same?”.
“Yes my lord”, came the reply, before telling the court after further questions: “My lord, I can say that I can’t answer that on the grounds of national security.”
Questioned about his statement of evidence concerning the deployment and retrieval of the various devices, he accepted that “each statement was prepared by someone else and I adopted it as mine”.
However, there appeared to be some difference in what he said about what had occurred during the various operations on the ground and the various statements on record.
In one it was recorded that he had installed devices and that maintenance was carried out on them, and that in addition a further device was installed. Initially he said that the reference to ‘maintenance’ meant his maintaining the various correct protocols with regard to the deployment of the audio devices.
When pressed he appeared to accept that he had carried out maintenance and installed a further device, only later to say that he had a total of 15 devices and all were deployed and later recovered. This was based on the serial numbers given to the various 15 devices, which although redacted, were recorded.
PIN 9281 said that recordings from the various devices were downloaded to three USB flashdrives, designated Blue, Green and Purple by the defence. However, it later transpired that the Purple USB, which could have been used as a ‘master’, has since disappeared.
The court also heard that it was also accepted by both prosecution and defence that two viruses had been found on two separate copies of the Blue USB device. At least one of the viruses ‘could have opened the door’ to the recordings to be altered or changed. It has also transpired that the computer used to download on to the USB devices has since been ‘decommissioned’.
Asked later by Mr Justice O’Hara what would have been wrong with setting out what he had done in a notebook, the officer replied that he had “wrote it down on a piece of paper”.
The trial continues on Wednesday when the officer will face further cross-examination by defence lawyers.