08.03.11

Hacking Scandal’s Brush With Terror

New allegations claim that News International journalists hacked computers, too—including that of a British officer who handled an IRA mole. William Underhill talks to the alleged victim.

His codename was “Stakeknife,” and for more than 20 years he’s said to have served the British security services as a highly prized mole in the upper ranks of the IRA, providing intelligence to the British army in its struggle against terrorism in Northern Ireland. A swirl of allegations surrounds his activities, including charges that others were killed to prevent his exposure as a double agent.

Now Stakeknife and the murky world of counter-terrorism—as well as the British police—are under the glare of media scrutiny. In a new twist to the story of wrongdoing at News International, Scotland Yard has broadened its inquiries to look specifically at whether journalists authorized private investigators to hack into computers as well as phones. The most prominent alleged victim so far: the British undercover officer who ran Stakeknife.

The allegation first surfaced earlier this year when a BBC investigation claimed that the now-shuttered News of the World, the best-selling tabloid in the News International stable, had targeted the computer of former intelligence officer Ian Hurst, who served as handler for Stakeknife. In 2004, Hurst, using a pseudonym,  co-authored a book on Britain’s secret agents in Northern Ireland that confirmed the media’s identification  of Stakeknife as Belfast-born builder Freddie Scappaticci, who has always denied playing a double role.

According to the BBC, the monitoring of Hurst’s computer was sanctioned in 2006 by Alex Marunchak, then the editor of the Irish edition of The News of the World, who was looking for more information on Scappaticci—even though the publication of his whereabouts or appearance was forbidden under the terms of a High Court injunction. Marunchak has denied the allegation.

Inevitably, the case has reinforced suspicions of collusion between the police and the Murdoch press, raised by the force’s failure to investigate fully the phone hacking charges against the Sunday tabloid after new evidence came to light. Apparently, Marunchak worked as a part-time Ukrainian interpreter for the Metropolitan Police. Two senior officers—including the head of the Metropolitan Police chief, Sir Paul Stephenson—have already resigned over the hacking affair.

Worse, it’s alleged that the police learnt that Hurst’s computer had been targeted as far back as 2006 but failed to act. Details are said to have emerged when officers seized the records of private investigator Jonathan Rees, once regularly used by The News of the World, who is at the center of other allegations of hacking and police corruption.  Some invoices are said to have been headed “Stakeknife” and “Scappaticci telephone records.” Earlier this year Rees was acquitted of the murder of his former business partner.

Inevitably, the case has reinforced suspicions of collusion between the police and the Murdoch press.

Hurst himself is convinced that the police deliberately ignored the evidence. “There is far more to this dynamic than might appear,” he told The Daily Beast Wednesday morning. He has now lodged a formal complaint against the police. “There are numerous aspects to this case which will reveal corruption at the very highest level.”

Now the police have widened the brief of its Operation Tuleta—launched in March to consider the strength of  recent allegations about the interception of emails—to create a full-scale investigation into computer hacking. According to Scotland Yard, the operation will look at charges which fall outside the remit of Operation Weeting, its existing inquiry into phone hacking.

A special team of officers, now being formed, will be answerable directly to Sue Akers, the senior officer in charge of the entire phone hacking investigation. The guilty can expect little sympathy and tough punishment. Under British law, computer hacking ranks as a more serious crime than phone hacking, carrying a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.

Hurst remains unconvinced, though, that justice will be done. “I am confident that Sue Akers and her team have the necessary skill set but my experience in life is that when a man in a grey suit taps on the shoulder and says something is not in the national interest police officers will walk away.”