How Two IRA Members Turned into Spies

Partnering with the enemy: That was the strategy used by British security forces to undermine the IRA. Matthew Teague chronicles the stories of two IRA members-turned-British-spies in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He tells Debbie Elliott how the spy game worked.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Spain's prime minister is expected to visit Dublin next month to learn about the Irish peace process. Like ETA, the Irish Republican Army used terrorist tactics in its fight to end British rule in Northern Ireland. The April issue of the Atlantic Monthly provides an in depth look at how British security forces infiltrated the IRA.

Writer Matthew Teague profiles two double agents who navigated a deadly path between appearing loyal to their IRA brethren and secretly working to bring down the organization. Teague begins his story at Victoria Station in London, where he met one of the double agents known as Kevin Fulton.

Mr. MATTHEW TEAGUE (Freelance Writer): He was a spy for the British within the IRA for about a decade and a half. He was from Northern Ireland but had joined the British Army and they recruited him from there to go back to Northern Ireland to join the IRA, and he rose up through the ranks and became part of a bomb making team. By day he would build bombs for the IRA and then from time to time he would have meetings with his spy handlers from the British intelligence services. Sometimes he could sabotage plans and sometimes he couldn't.

ELLIOTT: Now the other guy you profile is Freddy Scapiticci(ph). He's the son of Italian immigrants and he's head of what's known in the IRA as the nutting squad. What was that?

Mr. TEAGUE: Well, in northern Irish slang the nut is the head, and so the nutting squad, when they found a spy or a snitch, they would nut him by shooting him twice in the brain, and so they were sort of an internal security unit who would comb through the IRA ranks looking for a mole.

ELLIOTT: And here was this guy in their midst who is a mole.

Mr. TEAGUE: Right. I mean it was a brilliant strategic maneuver. It set him up such that he almost couldn't be discovered because anytime there was a suspicion of double-dealing, it was him that would be reported to so he was able to cover his tracks or finger someone else, whatever he needed to do to keep his cover.

ELLIOTT: Now, what's intriguing about the stories of both of these men, Scapiticci and Fulton, is how they keep their cover by continuing to kill.

Mr. TEAGUE: That's what's different about what the British did in Northern Ireland. Typically you think of a spy as someone who goes out, eavesdrops, gathers information, collects it and then reports back, whereas the British allowed their agents to become part of the organization, the IRA, to become active members and even to rise up to become leaders. The only difference between these agents and the terrorists that they were working against was that they, you know, called home after a mission.

ELLIOTT: It opens up a gray area, in particular for the government. There's this one example where Fulton takes a trip to New York sponsored by his British intelligence handlers but he's going there to actually get bomb technology for the IRA.

Mr. TEAGUE: And this is where this particular strategy becomes risky. They had devised a method where they could wirelessly detonate bombs by using a photo-flash, but the problem with that was is it could be set off by any bright light, headlights at night or a tourist taking a photo, the flash could set off the bomb prematurely.

So, they figured out a way to dial in a specific frequency that would set the bomb off. The problem was with that, that it was extremely rare and the only place they could find this technology was in New York and so Fulton had to come over to the States and acquire it and then pass it along to the IRA.

ELLIOTT: How did your spies wrestle with that? I mean, what did they tell you about why it was they had to continue to be part of these killing missions?

Mr. TEAGUE: Well, Fulton, Kevin Fulton put it to me pretty plainly. If someone grabs you and says, okay, we're goin' out tonight and we're gonna kill so-and-so, and you show up and everybody's ready to shoot the guy and they turn to you and they say, shoot him, if you refuse to do it, they'll shoot you and then they'll shoot him anyway. So the really only option you have is to follow through with the killing.

ELLIOTT: These men justified what they did by talking about a sacrifice for the greater good, but as you talk to them in this article, I get the sense that maybe they question that logic today.

Mr. TEAGUE: It's hard to speak for them, but with Fulton, for instance, he said early on that he had more satisfaction than regret, because the way I term it in the story is that he was engaging in a calculus of souls, saying, you know, if I save 3,000 people by killing 300 or 30 or 3, then I've done the right thing.

But as I spent more time with him there seemed to be some cracks in that façade and I asked him would someone have been able to serve the greater good by killing him when he started out, and he just very flatly said yes, it could've served the greater good if I had died, which really surprised me.

ELLIOTT: You write that the lesson here is that this tactic is still considered the way to fight terrorism, to infiltrate the terrorists and destroy them from the inside. Do you think this would be possible with, say, a big dispersed international terrorist group like al-Qaida?

Mr. TEAGUE: It's difficult to say if it's impossible. I'll say that it's probably just about the only way. The template is not perfect. The IRA is not exactly like al-Qaida and there are actually great differences, but the looming, over-arching question is the same, and that is whether a society is willing to sponsor this sort of behavior. Maybe it's worthwhile and maybe not.

ELLIOTT: Writer Matthew Teague's article Double Blind is in the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. TEAGUE: Sure.

ELLIOTT: One more note. This month an independent monitoring commission in Dublin reported that the Irish Republican Army no longer poses a terrorist threat. It concluded that IRA has decided to follow a political path instead of a militant one.

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