John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to award-winning journalist, author and historian Ed Moloney via telephone about documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that show the infiltration and surveillance of the Irish Northern Aid Committee by the FBI during the Irish Republican prisoners’ hunger strikes. (begins time stamp ~ 2:50)
Martin: Ed, are you with us?
Ed: Yes, I am, Martin. Yes.
Martin: Sorry, I didn’t know you were on the line. Welcome back to Radio Free Éireann and Ed Moloney is the author of A Secret History of the IRA. He was involved in the book and the television show, Voices From the Grave, that involved the great Brendan Hughes, a great patriot. He is the person who has been an award-winning journalist with the Irish Times, with the Sunday Tribune. He is also the person who maintains a blog, The Broken Elbow, if you hit up his name, Ed Moloney and Broken Elbow you’ll get it. And Ed, just within the last few days you have published some declassified FBI files on Irish Northern Aid for the particular time of 1980 and 1981; 1980 was a hunger strike at the end of the year led by Brendan Hughes and we thought it was going to lead to an agreement. In 1981, there was another hunger strike led by Bobby Sands and ten men would die on that hunger strike. And Ed, what is there that you show, the documents that were released, what was the FBI doing in terms of the Irish Northern Aid who would have all those demonstrations? I was on TV all the time as the Publicity Director – they didn’t allow people into the United States to speak, to represent the hunger strikers because of censorship-by-visa-denial – what was our government doing in terms of Americans who simply wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights and support the hunger strikers, support justice, oppose what the British were doing in the North of Ireland?
Ed: Well first of all, these documents were obtained by a New York based television journalist, called Nate Lavey, who got them for a particular purpose and decided that only one or two of these files were of interest to him and he passed the rest of them onto me so I’ve been sort of slowly releasing them, going through them, trying to summarise what’s in them and I think there’s about nearly twenty-five all together so I’ve only just started it, really, I think four. And as you said the last two files dealt with that period, 1980-81, and it’s clear that the FBI had launched what they call FCI, which is a foreign counter-intelligence investigation, into Irish Northern Aid, or NORAID as it was known, round about 1979 or thereabouts. And that enabled, because it was declared officially to be an FCI, a Foreign Counterintelligence Investigation, they were allowed to put NORAID and its various figures involved with it under the most intense surveillance and scrutiny which included electronic surveillance and physical surveillance. And if you go through the files you can see evidence, although a lot of the stuff is redacted, you can clearly see that they’re following them around and taking photographs at demonstrations and stuff like that and obviously there are references to electronic surveillance although none of the transcripts of conversations etc are reproduced in these files but one imagines that there’s lots of them there. And essentially what they were trying to do during this period was to link NORAID with arms smuggling to the IRA in Ireland. And this was at a time, if you remember I’m sure – we’re going back a long time now – but this was the time when Michael Flannery and George Harrison and other people were put on trial and that was followed by another trial, the Red Eye Missile trial as some people call it, in which Gerry McGeough managed to escape and traveled across the length and breadth of America to escape from the FBI and got back to Ireland. The Flannery and Harrison trial ended in their acquittal primarily because the jury believed a defence they put forward which was that they thought they were acting with the approval of the CIA because the arms dealer that they were having dealings with was also registered as a CIA source so they assumed that, their defence was, that they assumed that they were doing all of this with the approval of the United States government – the idea being that it was far better that the IRA get hold of American guns than they turn to the Soviet Union. Anyway, however far-fetched that argument might appear, it was successful and one wonders whether, in fact, this was a New York jury also delivering a verdict on the British handling of the hunger strike which was very fresh in people’s minds when that trial took place. But anyway, the files I’ve managed to read so far, and I’m reading them and then publishing them just after I’ve read them, the latest one actually shows a good deal of confusion on the part of the FBI. They’re not entirely sure, first of all, how much money NORAID is bringing in. They estimate the income in those years, prior to the – the normal years outside the hunger strike years because you probably remember the money going into NOARID during the hunger strike years like really increased quite dramatically – but normally they estimated it at around two hundred and twenty thousand. And because they got hold of NORAID’s financial accounts by virtue of a subpoena that had been served on the organisation, and it didn’t add up to two hundred and twenty thousand they therefore assumed that the missing whatever money was, a hundred thousand or thereabouts, was being used to buy weapons.
But what was their source for the two hundred and twenty thousand? It was a human source; someone inside NORAID had told them this. And that’s a pretty flimsy basis on which to then build this gigantic plot of arms smuggling, however credible it may have appeared to the outsider, and they based their subsequent investigations of NORAID on that. But in one of the documents there’s quite an extraordinary admission – they don’t really know whether NORAID is involved in arms smuggling. It may be, they say, that really the value of NORAID to the IRA is that it sends over money which is used to support the families of IRA prisoners and thereby releases IRA funds, which otherwise would have to be spent on that, to spend then on things like weapons and stuff like that. So they’re really not entirely sure and they’re proposing in this document a vast undercover operation inside NORAID which is going to take at least a year to bear any sort of fruit in which they will burrow someone in and he will try, or she will try, and find out as much as they can about any links to arms smuggling in NORAID and the grand jury will be set up and prosecutions will follow. Well we don’t know whether that recommendation was followed or whether it was rejected. If it was followed it clearly didn’t produce anything because there were no subsequent trials that, at least I’m aware of, which directly link NORAID in that sort of way. So what you get is like a – clearly the FBI – I would imagine as a result of pressure from both Dublin and London – are trying to discover what links there are between NORAID and gun running, essentially that’s what this is about.
Martin: Ed, might – just a couple of things and I’ll just ask you to comment. Number One: If Irish Northern Aid had been involved itself in gun running or anything illegal – as you say with the amount of surveillance, electronic, individual, human surveillance – I would have been put in jail a long time ago. What the real concern that the British government had was that we could put thousands of people in front of buildings protesting. Politicians started to see just in – there are thousands of people now who will march the streets for the hunger strikers – well there’s a lot of them who might vote for the MacBride Principles, for an end of visa denial, for candidates who are as interested in Ireland and an end of British rule in Ireland as other voters are interested in say, supporting Israel, or supporting other countries around the world and that was what their concern was and they couldn’t undermine Irish Northern Aid by saying: Gee, they’re just too strong an influence against the British. They’re doing too much to expose what the British are doing in the North of Ireland, they’re contributing to the families of Irish political prisoners – we’ll say they must be involved with gun running and try and prosecute people and spy on them on that basis. What’s your feeling about that comment?
Ed: Yeah, I mean I think clearly they were concerned, particularly in those hunger strike days when NORAID had the potential to bring out like tens of thousands of people and you had Michael Flannery being chosen as the Grand Marshal of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, you had Peter whats-his-name from Long Island…
Martin: …Peter King.
Ed: Peter King in I think it was ’84 or ’85 was made Grand Marshal as well and he sort of gave a respectable face to Irish Republicanism in New York. I guess they were deeply concerned – but I suspect at the end of the day they were under pressure from their allies in Dublin and particularly in London to try to move against NORAID and try to put it out of business if only just to win a battle against them and to get the Americans on their side in the ideological argument as much as anything else about what was happening in Northern Ireland.
John: Ed, I know you don’t have – the years you’re looking at is ’80 and ’81 but when I was the editor of the Irish People newspaper they raided the offices to arrest Hugh Feeney, who was convicted of the bombings in London along with Gerry Kelly, but you know years later we find out it was orchestrated really to get rid of him because the IRA or the Republican Movement always had someone in New York, when they got rid of him the Republican Movement sent over Denis Donaldson. So it looks like they were coordinating with British intelligence to make sure that they could get one of their agents into New York to get the intelligence they needed so even went beyond the surveillance and beyond that now…
Ed: Oh! I would be amased, John, if there wasn’t like operational coordination of that sort between FBI, MI5, the Irish Special Branch and the security authorities in Northern Ireland over, you know, operational basis, you know? On like who are we’re going to arrest and who we put under surveillance – there would be a joint committee I’m sure. I mean a lot of this stuff is going to remain hidden forever but I would imagine that the structures existed, the bureaucratic structures existed, to facilitate that very detailed type of cooperation, operational cooperation, which they wouldn’t want the public to really know about – it would be embarrassing to have that sort of stuff revealed but common sense says there had to be that type of cooperation. Wouldn’t you think?
Martin: Yeah Ed, this is Martin Galvin, I had the opportunity to review files that were released under the Irish People case – there was a case brought to try and force the Irish People newspaper to be registered as a foreign agent. We, the Irish People newspaper, won that case – thank you to Chuck Simms of the American Civil Liberties Union – but there were thousands of documents that were released at that time as part of the discovery that they had to go, having begun that case a federal judge demanded, required them, to turn over discovery as they would in any other case. And document after document was cc’d – the British embassy in Washington, British (legation) in London, Irish Em…all of that – everything was sent around to the various governments and it was particularly embarrassing for them that they were doing this – trying to put an American-produced newspaper out of business, undermine it, undercut it, have it registered as a foreign agent, maybe deny it post office facilities and subscription facilities, and they were dong this, it was obvious from these documents, that they had to report on this at every stage to the British government – not just in Washington, not just in the New York office – but they had to do it in London, they had to do it in the Irish government and how much they were being asked to do by these two governments as you say.
Ed: Hmm, yeah – well it makes sense. I mean it would be extraordinary I would think if it didn’t happen that way, you know, given their relationships so none of that is a surprise but it’s nice to have the detail that occasionally comes to light to sort of confirm this sort of stuff and historically it’s important, I think, to have these documents there and for people to make a study of this. Interestingly, I don’t know whether the FBI had separate files on Clann na Gael but Clann na Gael doesn’t, as far as the files that I have read (and I add that because you know there’s a lot more for me to read before I can make a definite statement on this), but there’s no mention so far in any of these files of Clann na Gael which I found quite extraordinary. I mean if you’re looking at militant Irish Republicanism in the United States and the sort of areas that the FBI was probing you would imagine that they would at least rate a mention if not more than that but they don’t.
Martin: Right. And Michael Flannery was an officer, for example, in Clann na Gael for many years so some of the people involved in these cases were never involved with – such as George Harrison – was never a member of Irish Northern Aid but that is one of the reasons why – well, it’s another piece of evidence that supports my view that they were concerned about the publicity, about the lobbying, about more congressmen getting involved, about more public officials getting involved, about negative publicity about British rule in Ireland that that was really what was the worrisome thing – that the British government is putting pressure, the Irish government at that time putting a great deal of pressure and the FBI started to respond to that and if the rights of American citizens, First Amendment rights, to this information had to be violated they were prepared to try and do it. I want to ask you…
Ed: …And also you know it’s a, we’re often sort of over-awed by these people. We imagine you know that because they’ve got all these powers and all this money and reputation and history and what have you you imagine that they are so much better than they actually are. I mean for example I’m sure it will come as a huge surprise to people who were active in NORAID right through The Troubles in Northern Ireland to find out that where they had their annual dinner was actually a place called the Astorian Manner (Ed spells manner) in Brooklyn! Now I mean that’s in an FBI document, alright? So like if you’re an FBI agent and you’re looking, you’re researching NORAID, you’ll think: Oh, right – they meet in the Astorian Manner in Brooklyn. I must find out where that is and go along to the next meeting – everyone knew – I mean basic stuff – it’s the Astoria Manor (Ed spells manor) in Queens which is an entirely different borough. I mean, if the FBI got very simple details like that wrong you know what does that say about their ability to really track things like arms shipments and who was doing what and when, etc?
Martin: Which would have been advertised…
Martin: …pages, photographs in all the newspapers –
Ed: …absolutely, absolutely…
Martin: …exactly the politicians that were there. Ed, during that period – John McDonagh and I were laughing – during the demonstrations for the hunger strike I was approached on an almost weekly basis by people who said they wanted to sell arms and they would hand me their numbers or they would pass on phone numbers to me and would even say you know, when I refused to take it or say I’m not involved in anything like that, that if I really cared about Ireland I would get involved and work with them in buying guns which seemed to me to be so obvious an FBI plot – you’re talking about ability – it was just so ham-handed a way of going about things that even if I had been involved in something like that, which I was not, anybody would have seen through what they were trying to do, anybody would have rejected those overtures but that’s the level of activity, the level of ability, the level of the coordination that they had or perhaps it’s the level of desperation about how that they had to do something to support the British and that’s the lengths to which they were prepared to go – First Amendment or un-American activities like that.
Ed: Or also, Martin, maybe not everyone was as clever as you were and responded differently, you know? I mean, you don’t know. Maybe they were just hoping that someone would say ‘yes’ at some point because they maybe – they were going to you, they might have been going to other people as well that you didn’t know about, you know? You don’t know.
John: And you know, Ed, but you know the FBI weren’t looking for where the money was coming – because it definitely it had to be coming from somewhere because there were enough trials going on here with arms shipments going over to Ireland – and then you had the cases up in Boston where you had Whitey Bulger and that crew and people in Irish Northern Aid up there and sending over a huge shipment of guns so there was money in this country that was going to arms shipments…
Ed: …Of course…
John: …because we knew that…
Ed: … well read Brendan Hughes’ interviews and he came over for that tour and the reason for that, it was an IRA tour, and it was to raise money to buy weapons and what have you.
You have the whole business about the smuggling of the Armalites – and clearly there was an awful lot of arms smuggling going on but you know, at the same time, the idea that – and it became part of the mythology and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why the FBI was under so much pressure to do something – that America was the major source of weapons for the IRA whereas in fact we know now that it was Libya and other places in the Middle East which were much more important. You know obviously we know the George Harrison linkage at the very start was extremely important but by the 1980’s I think that had been overshadowed by linkages to places like Libya, you know?
Martin: Ed, I just want to clarify: The Brendan Hughes tour, which was tremendously successful, that was separate – people contributed to him saying this is not Irish Northern Aid money, this is not for the families of political prisoners, this is money that is going to go directly to Ireland. But even in the Flannery trial, he was actually inquired – Frank Durkan showed me the transcript – called me to ask me about it – they were asking him was it Irish Northern Aid money involved, in that trial – that arms trial – and where it was kept and he had to go through, at length, how there was money indeed in the United States that was collected for arms that went to him or George Harrison and others but it was separate and distinct, it was nothing to do with Irish Northern Aid. When people said if you give us money for the families of political prisoners or for publicity or for political lobbying that’s where it would go. We kept faith with people to contribute. If you wanted to contribute to one thing you would do it. There were people certainly contributing who wanted to do something more direct and send weapons back for people to defend themselves against British forces, but that was separate and that’s why the FBI had such trouble in terms of Irish Northern Aid. I do want to say though, the documents which you have, it relates to Colorado – Chicago was the area of the Irish Northern Aid Committee which was trying to organise in Colorado and it seems a particular problem in Chicago – there were a couple of cases – there was a guy named Tuttle – Dave Rupert would emerge from Chicago, I don’t know if he was involved in Irish Northern Aid at some point – but it seemed that that particular office did a great deal to try to get surveillance, to try to get infiltration. They didn’t have the success there in terms of Irish Northern Aid and I think that that’s why you ended up with Denis Donaldson coming to the United States and trying to get the surveillance that they couldn’t get otherwise.
Ed: Well they seemed to have someone in Colorado on the organising committee for the – you know they were trying to create a chapter of Irish Northern Aid in Denver – and clearly this guy was attending the meetings and the reports show that, I think, pretty clearly, you know?
Martin: No, I would agree with that. I have seen reports in Irish Northern Aid documents or Irish People documents where there were accounts of meetings that were completely accurate, that indicated that there was somebody in the meeting who – which were public meetings – who would have attended, who would have given information. Chicago, the Midwest Region, did not have a big say in terms of the organisation as a whole, they weren’t represented on the national executive, they didn’t have people coming to New York or where ever the national executive meetings would be – they wouldn’t have had that leadership level involvement or insight – just other areas around the country did not – that only came when they got Denis Donaldson. Ed, we are coming to the end of the first half hour. We do want to thank you…
Ed: ….No problem.
Martin: …there’s a lot more we could go into. We want to thank you for coming on today. (ends time stamp ~ 25:29)