British intelligence has been made to look rather stupid recently. First the Brits were blamed for putting words into President Bush’s mouth, and this week they are taking the fall for a case of mistaken identity in the Middle East.
On Sunday, Britain’s Observer reported that Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, and the Israeli police were searching for an IRA bomb-maker suspected of training Palestinian terrorists in Israel. The next day, the Guardian said a “leading dissident Irish republican” said to be “a protege” of one of the three suspected IRA members currently on trial in Colombia had been arrested in Ramallah in the West Bank late on Saturday following a tip-off from British intelligence. By Tuesday, however, papers were reporting that the Israeli authorities had detained the wrong man. The News Letter of Belfast claimed that security sources on the lookout for an IRA extremist named John Morgan had instead arrested an “Irish language supporter on a cultural exchange trip to Palestine” with the same name. Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that “British security services had no up-to-date picture of the suspected terrorist, so they identified him only by name, and John Morgan is a common name.”
Associates of the detainee, also known by the Irish name Seán O Muireagáin, said he is a peace activist and school governor who had traveled to the West Bank to establish twinning programs with Palestinian schools. A spokeswoman for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, of which O Muireagáin is a member, told the Belfast Telegraph, “This is a blatant attempt to discredit and malign any sort of solidarity work with Palestine that is essentially about making a positive change and aiding in the conflict resolution process.” Several papers also noted that O Muireagáin is a contributor to Lá, a Belfast-based Gaelic-language paper. Less than a week before his arrest, the paper published a full-page dispatch from Jenin accompanied by O Muireagáin’s photograph, proof, Lá’s editor claimed, that he was in the West Bank openly.
The London Times declared the blunder “an extraordinary failure in intelligence at a time when Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is in Britain on a visit that has included talks with Tony Blair on intelligence and security co-operation.” The Times reported that O Muireagáin will be released Wednesday, “a slap in the face to British security officials who were adamant in the face of claims of mistaken identity that they had earmarked the right man.” (This was contradicted by a report in the Jerusalem Post in which a security official told the paper, “There are two John Morgan’s, both are linked to the IRA, one ideologically and the other actively. We arrested the person we were looking for and are checking his motives and his reasons for staying in the West Bank.”) The Times added that O Muireagáin will still be deported from Israel “for unspecified activities in violation of his tourist visa.” According to the Times, the Israeli government stopped issuing press visas to correspondents from small independent newspapers after an Italian journalist gave a lift to two British citizens who carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv this April.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph admitted that the arrest “has just a whiff of farce about it.” Still, the paper said: “There is a long and dishonourable Irish republican tradition of hostility to Jewish national aspirations. This has permeated the official culture of the Irish state, as well as of contemporary paramilitary groupings.” During the sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Catholic activists traditionally supported Palestinian groups while Protestants expressed solidarity with Israel.