Today with Seán O’Rourke
RTÉ Radio 1
Seán: To a most intriguing story now: It’s about an American trucker who came to Ireland in the 1990’s and ended up working for both the FBI and MI5. David Rupert gained the trust of high profile Republican dissidents including Joe O’Neill, Mickey Donnelly and Michael McKevitt and he subsequently gave testimony in court that saw McKevitt convicted of directing terrorism. Journalist Sean O’Driscoll has told David Rupert’s story in a new book called The Accidental Spy. He’s with me in studio and we’re joined also on the line by David Rupert, the American in question. Sean, let’s start with the question that you pose in this book: Was David Rupert an FBI agent posing as a trucker or a trucker who joined the FBI?
O’Driscoll: Um, definitely a trucker who joined the FBI. It was an extraordinary set of circumstances by which he came into all of this area of infiltration into the Real IRA. He’s somebody who didn’t know a whole lot about Ireland before this all started so it was very much incremental – piece by piece – he got further and further into this world.
Seán: And David, you are quoted as saying that all trucker stories start with three things: A bar, a beer and a woman. Now can you explain and give us the context how you got involved with the IRA?
Rupert: Well, it’s not all trucker stories it’s my personal life – most things have started or a lot things have started that way – but I was in a bar in Florida and I was divorced and met a woman that was from home and she hung out at an Irish pub across the street and they piped their music into the street, the pub was called The Harp and Thistle, and I liked the music and she wanted to go over there so I went over there with her. And subsequently, she wanted to go to Ireland and so I took her to Ireland and I liked it over there – we were on the west, southwest – you know, Dingle and down in there; we flew into Shannon. And Kerry – I liked it real well and it was kind of like going back home forty years ago. Her and I broke up and then I met Linda Vaughn in the same pub who was a lobbyist for the Florida state senate and also involved with NORAID in the US and she had won the Seán MacBride (Humanitarian) Award at one time. Subsequently from her I met Joe O’Neill and some others and through some pictures that the Garda took of me and Joe O’Neill together the FBI tracked me down in Chicago wondering who I was and what I was up to because I wasn’t one of the normal players in the Irish situation an that’s how it all came about.
Seán: Yes, and you had, you participated in the armed movement then supplying – they helped you to buy a pub, isn’t that right? And you supplied them with empty beer kegs to start with.
Rupert: Well, yeah. We leased the pub there through Joe O’Neill and with money that the FBI, you know, the FBI participated in supplying the money to lease the pub. It was the Drowes Bar in Tullaghan up in Co. Leitrim there on the coast and you know, they had asked me, Joe had asked me for, to supply empty beer kegs for bomb casings and that was kind of like the beginning of me being involved in, you know, the Army-type operation.
Seán: You eventually, I think, worked your way onto the Army Council of the Real IRA.
Rupert: Yeah I, well, it wound up through, from Joe O’Neill it wound through a fella up in Doire there, Mickey Donnelly, and then through Mickey. I was carrying money over from the US groups. I never supplied, part of the deal was that that we would never supply anything that could be used to harm, you know? Like detonators or det cord or anything like that or timers – but I was bringing money over and, you know, when you’re the bag man everybody, you know, would like to get to know you. So Mickey McKevitt wanted to meet me through Mickey Donnelly and McKevitt and I became, you know, relatively good friends – of course, he was befriending, you know, a British agent and so from there I got a seat on the Army Council. It was a seat to represent the US. I wasn’t involved in the, you know, decisions on what to do and who to do it to.
Seán: And when and how did MI5 come into the story as well as the FBI?
Rupert: After the, we had leased the pub and that following Spring MI5 got in touch with the FBI. The FBI was interested in the money going from the US to Ireland to fund terrorism. MI5 got involved because they were coming up to the Good, the peace process and, you know, MI5 was quite interested in that and I was in a situation where I knew people that, or was involved with people that, were dissident to the peace process. So when MI5 got involved, anytime I was in the US I was basically under the control of FBI and when I was in Europe I was under control or direction of MI5.
Seán: Now Sean, to come back to you, Sean O’Driscoll, you describe one incident in the book where the MI5 handler did something which could have exposed David and blown his cover I think it’s true to say.
O’Driscoll: Yeah, David had a meeting up at, it was near Strabane, it was the ancestral home of Woodrow Wilson, the US President, and he had agreed to meet an MI5 agent there for a debriefing but the guy left his English brand, a very distinctive brand, of cigarettes in David’s car then David drove down South. At the time he was mixing with a very senior dissident in Doire and David was interested in buying a house in the area so the guy was showing him all over Donegal and Doire and with this pack of cigarettes still right there on the door of the car, you know? And David doesn’t smoke, his wife doesn’t smoke and it would have immediately kind of set off something that something was wrong.
Seán: Yeah, and David, you must have been under immense pressure leading these double lives.
Rupert: Oh yeah, a lot of pressure but, you know, when I was in character, like with McKevitt or with Mickey Donnelly or Joe O’Neill or whoever, the person that they were sitting there across the table was Republican to the core and in the back of us was like two people there and, you know, inside my head and then in the back of the head was the little fellow that was taking notes.
Seán: And David, you and your wife, Maureen – you developed your own method of recording information to supply to these intelligence services. Just describe how that worked and the part played by Maureen.
Rupert: If she was with me she would, when we were driving back from wherever – I’ve always had a tremendous memory and, you know, I could go into a meeting and remember, you know, four or five cars’ licence plate numbers in the parking lot – so once we’d leave I would start dictating to her notes and she’d write the stuff down. Now, she wasn’t always with me especially as time went on and it got more dangerous she didn’t go with me and I would, you know, drive along and stop to make notes but again, you don’t want to do anything that looks suspicious in case somebody drives by and sees you and you know: Well gee, what were you sitting on the side of the road for? So, but when she was with me – as a matter of fact we, you know, we used to jokingly refer to her as ’99’ which is a reference to an old US TV spy show, but you know, so she kind of acted as a secretary to, you know, take down my notes on it.
Seán: Yes, and Sean O’Driscoll, the book gives a lot of space to the Omagh bombing in 1998 and the consequences of that for the Real IRA and the Republican Movement.
O’Driscoll: Yeah. I think maybe it’s key to it in a lot of ways. I mean, it was such a seminal moment for so many people at the time and it led to the Real IRA to restructure. And then David came in just at that moment, just as they desperately needed a US fund raising wing and a US weapons wing, and so David came in at that moment and his evidence before the Mickey McKevitt criminal trial in Dublin was then used in the Omagh civil action by the families when they sued the four bombers so he was the person that the civil action had found was able to link three of the bombers to the Omagh bomb because they discussed it so much.
Seán: Tell me a little but more about that, David Rupert, because you did, as Sean said, you eventually testified in court against Mickey McKevitt who was given a long sentence for directing terrorism.
Rupert: Well yeah, I was involved with the Continuity Army when the, in Republican Sinn Féin, when the bombing happened and after it happened McKevitt had been talking to Donnelly along that time about wanting to meet me and they, my handlers, decided that I should move over, you know, to the Real IRA. So we seized upon the opportunity and I went and met McKevitt. McKevitt, in regards to the Omagh bomb – and this is according to him and I’d probably believe him on it – he knew there was going to be a bomb but he wouldn’t have known it was going to be in Omagh or where – he okayed a bomb but not where it was supposed to be and the people that put the bomb there were supposed to put it in a certain place and the warnings were called in for a certain place but when the two fellas got there to park the car, there weren’t, you know, the parking places were taken so they went down the road until they could find a place to park the car so it wasn’t where the warnings were. And McKevitt was furious. He said when they couldn’t put it where it was supposed to be they should have taken out of the town there and let it go out in the country where it didn’t, you know, didn’t hurt anybody.
Seán: Coming back to you, Sean, can you just explain, in overall terms – you touched on the trial there and the evidence and also the fact in the civil action that David’s evidence was used in that by the Omagh relatives – but just explain in overall terms what was achieved with David Rupert’s spying and his testimony.
O’Driscoll: Yeah, at the end of the book I kind of do a summation there. I mean, it really did change so much in understanding of dissident Republicanism and how to defeat it. David identified over one hundred people that were involved in dissident Republicanism, he identified how they were getting weapons from America, his evidence was used in the Omagh civil case. It was the first time, in the Mickey McKevitt case, it was the first time ever in Irish history that someone was convicted of directing terrorism and that was directly on David’s evidence – so you know, it had a huge effect. I think it had a big effect on the Gards, too, you know, from the Gards I had spoken to in terms of how to run an operation. It also changed MI5 because up to that point they were very much in the background. They generally didn’t bring cases to court so after David it became much more focused on bringing prosecutions, you know, when they went to Slovakia to do a sting operation on the three Real IRA guys who thought that they were going to get a massive amount of weapons from Saddam Hussein they brought their lawyer with them and it was all about how are we going to bring this to court, you know? So I think David’s case also changed them.
Seán: Yeah and David, what has life been like for you and, indeed, for Maureen, in the aftermath of all of this?
Rupert: Well, we live with a fair amount of security. I mean, you know, we’re security conscious I should say. My friends would be all old friends – you know, I’m not big to make current friends just because, you know, it’s hard to explain what you did or what, you know, what you did for a living for the last twenty years, you know? But, you know, we just live a normal life.
Seán: What kind of money, David, were you paid by the FBI for your spying?
Rupert: Well I can’t, I guess that – it’s in the book but I, it didn’t come from me and I really can’t, that’s one of the things that I can’t discuss.
Seán: Well Sean, you might, perhaps, enlighten us here.
O’Driscoll: Yeah well, some of it is public record. There’s a fund for, a justice fund, set up by the federal government after 9/11 for people who helped in anti-terrorism work so David got five million from that. And I mean, that’s searchable through the US government and then through the court records in his case, you know, the defence, barristers were able to show that he was getting quite a bit of money and then from sources in, security forces, in Britain I would estimate close to ten million.
Seán: In all. For how long a period was this work carried out, David Rupert?
Rupert: Well, I started in 1994 and, you know, I am still protecting myself and my wife and it’s 2019 so – and will be for the rest of our lives – not that I’m so necessarily worried about the Real IRA because they’re, more or less, out of business. But you know, some screwball that, Republican, you know, think, you know, that ‘Up the RA’ type Republican young fella that thinks that doing some harm to me or my wife would be a feather in their cap or something.
Seán: Do you still have support and protection or help in that from the FBI?
Rupert: I can’t really discuss that either – that comes back to security matters.
Seán: Yeah, I should explain to our listeners as well: We don’t know where you are. You called us – we didn’t call you. And but I’m just – can you sleep easily in your bed?
Rupert: Oh yeah, I don’t have any problem. I mean, we have, we’re well secured.
Seán: Yeah, Sean O’Driscoll, how did you gain David’s trust because obviously he has to be careful. But how did you gain his trust in order to write this book?
O’Driscoll: I suppose, I just, I had to convince him that I knew his world because I know David had been burnt by journalists before – people who had promised him this and that. You know, I spent twenty years writing about dissident Republicanism and I kind of knew their world and I was just able to, just – it took a while but just to show David that I was serious about it.
Seán: And David, why did you agree to the collaboration?
Rupert: During the trial, in the lead-up to the trial and after the trial, because the FBI and, you know, obviously, MI5 have a policy of never making any comment the Real IRA and the friends of the Real IRA and friends of the Republican Movement had a open field to make up, make stories and say whatever they wanted and the stories got bigger and bigger and bigger and farther and farther from what actually happened. So the reason I agreed to collaborate was is I wanted to have, you know, the real story out there. And when I read the book after it was done there was a lot of stuff in there that, as a matter of fact a lot of stuff, that I didn’t know about that was going on around me because Sean knew about it or Sean got it out of interviews that he did for the book, you know, from the various police that were, you know, in Northern Ireland police and the Garda operation, that was just amasing to me. So it’s really, really a good book.
Seán: Okay, we’ll leave it there. Look, my thanks to you both – to you David Rupert on the line from – well, we won’t say where – and also my thanks to you, Sean O’Driscoll, journalist and author. The book is called The Accidental Spy and it is published by Mirror Book and sells for seventeen ninety-nine in euro. Thank you both, indeed. (ends)