Threat to MI5 operations in Northern Ireland

On 8 August there was a massive accidental leak of the names and units of all 9,276 serving PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officers. Their details were on a spreadsheet which was disseminated by mistake. In the chaos followed, it was then revealed that there had already been an earlier leak involving a stolen laptop which contained more details of hundreds of those officers. One senior police source summed it up when he said: “It’s the same as handing over the Crown Jewels to the enemies of the state. Worse.”

But these leaks have intelligence service implications as well as being a monumental policing disaster. MI5, the UK security service, has an out-station in Northern Ireland based at Palace Barracks in Holywood. Intensive surveillance operations are carried out from there on resurgent nationalist terrorist groups such as the “Real IRA.” Dozens of PSNI officers work at Holywood. MI5 officers have no power of arrest so PSNI officers are necessary for raids and they also assist with their local knowledge on surveillance operations. Now their details, including the fact that they are a member of this special support unit, have been published on the internet. The details were only available for a few hours but they have already been displayed on the walls of Sinn Fein offices which implies that they will be widely available.

This was all caused not by a well-placed mole or years of intelligence dedicated work but by two simple errors. It is a timely lesson for everyone in the espionage game and one reasons why the intelligence services of the world still commit their greatest secrets only to paper records. Electronic storage, no matter how well protected, is vulnerable. So is paper of course, but to a far lesser degree.

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