It seems too farfetched even for an airport novel. Three men breeze into a heavily fortified police station, stroll straight to the office that contains its most sensitive information, and walk out again with highly classified documents. But that's just what happened last week at Castlereagh Police Station in Belfast. The perpetrators of this audacious crime did more than just provide the authors of cheap fiction with a new plot twist they managed to spook the real-life spooks.
Castlereagh was supposed to be secure. The small complex of squat brick buildings in east Belfast houses the divisional headquarters of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the armed service that operates across the province. Castlereagh is also a nest of spies, a base from which the secret wing of the police, Special Branch, trades information with British military intelligence and MI5, Britain's internal security service, about loyalist and republican terrorists. Room 220 is where informers working inside paramilitary groups arrange meetings with police. And it was here that the burglars struck.
According to police sources, three men entered the station flashing military passes and made their way to Room 220. They quickly overpowered the only Special Branch detective working there. He was tied up and hooded, and given a personal stereo to listen to while the three spent 20 minutes rifling through files. Then they checked the bound detective's circulation, packed up some files and disappeared. When news of the burglary filtered out, tremors went through Special Branch's network of informers and operatives. Slipups like this can mean a bullet in the head or a bomb reaching its target.
But the burglars appear to have been intelligence insiders rather than terrorist raiders. Not only was their knowledge of Castlereagh intimate, it was also bang up to date Room 220 had been moved to its present location just a week before. "These people weren't walking about aimlessly looking for an office," says one police source. "This was very slick and very professional."
The motive is a puzzle. Informers don't seem to have been the target; Police Service Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan said none were named in the missing documents. Nor was the aim likely to be the destruction of incriminating documents: a senior police source said duplicates of all the papers are still in safekeeping. The military passes used to enter the building and the English accent of one burglar fueled suspicions that the team worked for a shadowy British army unit that is already accused of breaking the law as part of its counterterrorism operations. Another theory suggests that former police intelligence officers could have carried out the daring raid.
John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, flew back from America after the raid to declare a breach of national security. Such a high state of alert is justified, he says, because of the important nature of intelligence work. Reid told Time that in the past year at least three "potentially disastrous terrorist attacks have been thwarted" by Special Branch and other agencies. Critics say there may be other reasons. Intelligence agencies in Northern Ireland have always bent the law, but there are persistent suggestions that they routinely broke it even to the point of murder.
The murky events at Castlereagh are feeding the conspiracy theories. Reid has placed a trusted mandarin in charge of reviewing the breach which will run in parallel with a criminal investigation but his report is "unlikely" to be made public. By invoking national security, Reid also has the power to freeze out any political scrutiny. Denis Bradley, vice-chairman of the new board set up to oversee policing, fumed: "I have yet to meet anyone in Northern Ireland who believes this is anything other than the government looking after its own needs." These are delicate days for policing in Northern Ireland. There are still struggles over how much light to cast on the murky role of intelligence agencies. At a time when the spies should be retiring, the break-in at Castlereagh adds new urgency to the question of how to watch the watchers.