Police are investigating a major leak of intelligence secrets, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
The probe comes after a letter was sent to this paper identifying prominent dissident republicans and loyalists operating as agents.
The correspondence — which purports to come from a former RUC Special Branch officer — suggests dissident republican atrocities such as the murders of the two soldiers at Massereene or Constable Stephen Carroll in March last year could have been prevented.
A police spokeswoman last night said: “We can confirm that an investigation has already commenced into an alleged leak of sensitive information to a media source.”
‘Leak’ blows lid on terror threat
Claims protection |of agents being put above public safety The recent attack on Newry Courthouse (above), the car bomb attack on Constable Peadar Heffron, and a paramilitary gunman. The author of the letter, who purports to have been a Special Branch employee, suggests many dissident attacks could have been prevented
PSNI detectives have begun an investigation into what could prove to be a life-threatening leak of intelligence secrets.
It comes after anonymous letters were sent to Belfast Telegraph journalists identifying alleged agents operating inside the dissident republican and loyalist worlds.
In some cases codenames are given as well as their registration numbers as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS).
The author of the letter purports to be a former Special Branch officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Three senior dissident republicans and three loyalists — two of them publicly known — are named.
A number of sources believe it was written by a disgruntled former officer with knowledge of the intelligence system.
The letter argues the protection of agents is being placed above public safety, and suggests a number of attacks could have been prevented including the shootings at Massereene Barracks and in Craigavon last year in which two soldiers and a police officer were killed. A police spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on intelligence matters.
“However, we can confirm that an investigation has already commenced into an alleged leak of sensitive information to a media source.
“The PSNI is fully committed to protecting all communities, reducing crime and tackling all criminality.”
On Thursday and yesterday PSNI intelligence and investigative officers visited the offices of the Belfast Telegraph after being contacted by this newspaper.
The letters and an envelope were removed for forensic tests.
Detectives will be keen to identify its author.
Letters were sent to journalists Brian Rowan and Deborah McAleese, the Telegraph’s crime correspondent.
The letters read: “I served in Special Branch. I know what I am talking about. Why am I writing to you? Because someone needs to ask the questions.
“The protection of agents seems to outweigh the protection of the public. This cannot be allowed to continue.”
Because of the potential risk to life, this newspaper will not publish the actual names of those alleged to be agents.
Details that could cost lives in wrong hands
The letters sent to this newspaper take you inside the hidden world of intelligence.
It is a leak of the most sensitive information — details that in the wrong hands could cost lives.
The police and MI5 do not comment on intelligence of this type. They do not confirm or deny.
But the PSNI will now advise those named in the letters of the information sent to this newspaper.
“There would be repercussions for individuals whether what’s in that (the letter) is correct or not,” one source said.
The letter names a high-profile loyalist, a man republicans have raised questions about in their contacts with the Irish government, the police and the Police Ombudsman.
He is someone who Sinn Fein believes has been a so-called “protected species”.
The letter claims he is a CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Source) who has been “given thousands of pounds”.
The author of the letter writes: “Colleagues of mine are being harassed and arrested under the new politically correct dispensation...
“We fought a tough war against the terrorists who would stop at nothing to undermine democracy. What was it all for?
“Our senior officers, who instructed us at every step, have been well rewarded and honoured, whereas we face a future of uncertainty and fear.”
The letter then identifies three prominent dissident republicans, claiming they “are ours”, meaning agents. In one case an actual name is given along with the codename and registration number — “a leading dissident began to target police officers in 2006 to build his dissident credibility”. A second republican is identified by his actual name and by codename, and a third north Belfast republican is identified by name only.
This newspaper does not know the identity of the author of the letter, but a number of well-placed sources believe it has come from someone with knowledge of the intelligence world and its systems.
The letter is not being dismissed as a hoax.
An investigation is under way and the focus will be to identify the author before other sentitive information is leaked.