SpyCast 9.12.23
Ep 602 | 9.12.23

“Irish Garda Intelligence Chief” – with Assistant Commissioner Michael McElgunn


Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast." [ Music ] The official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Every week, we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. Please subscribe to the show if you haven't already, and consider leaving us a five-star review so that other listeners can find us. Coming up next on "SpyCast."

Michael McElgunn: We had an intelligence intervention which stopped a car and made some arrests, and seized an improvised mortar. And what was I guess most significant about this, it was very close proximity to the border. This mortar was of a new type that we hadn't seen before. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: This week is the third installment of our five-week long Spy Chief series. They started off with former CIA Director David Petraeus; the second week featured former Director General of Kenya's National Intelligence Service, Wilson Boinett; and we will continue next week with former Number 2 of India's Research and Analysis Wing, Vapala Bala Chandran before closing out with the first woman to be the head of a US Intelligence Agency, Tish Long. This week's guest is Michael McElgunn. He oversees the major intelligence component of An Garda Síochána, which is Ireland's national police and security service. Michael joined in 1991, and has made his way to the highest levels of the organization as assistant commissioner. He has a first-class honors degree in police leadership form University college, Dublin; and he's also a graduate of the FBI National Academy here in the States, and the UK College of Policing. In this episode Michael and I discuss intelligence on the island of Ireland, the Gardaí's role in The Troubles, the Gardaí's role in counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and counter-espionage, and the importance of the Gardaí's American, British, and European partners. The original podcast in intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. [ Music ] Okay, I'm so pleased to speak to you, Michael. It was a pleasure to meet you when you were over here in the States earlier this year. So thanks ever so much for coming on the show. And I really look forward to speaking to you about Garda and Ireland and Irish intelligence.

Michael McElgunn: Thank you very much, Andrew. I'm delighted to be here and great to get this opportunity to do this podcast with you. I think there will certainly be information of relevance and interest, particularly to people in the US with Irish connections and Irish history.

Andrew Hammond: One of them is sitting right next to me just now. [ Laughter ] Okay. Okay, so let's just start at the top. So for a lot of our listeners that aren't familiar, tell them what the Garda is. Tell them just a little bit about the Garda before we start digging into what you do and the intelligence functions of it.

Michael McElgunn: Sure, yes. The Garda -- Garda Síochána actually is the full title. That's a Gaelic expression which means guardians of the peace. And we are the policing and security service of the Irish state that's defined in law. So there's no other police service in the Republic of Ireland. And then that security service, which is the department that I head up, the internal service, is known as the Garda National Crime Security and Intelligence Service. And I might talk a little bit about that in a moment. So the Garda Síochána as an organization and colloquially known in Ireland as The Guards, has celebrated its centenary last year. And sure in our 100 years, 89 members of the organization have been killed in the execution of their duty on behalf of the Irish state. And some of those were by terrorists associated with Northern Ireland-related terrorism, including groupings such as the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army. And in terms of numbers, there are about 15,000 sworn officers in An Garda Síochána. And about 3,000 support staff. And then there's also 500 reserve officers who support. And so that's the whole -- figures for the whole organization, if you like. And because it's a policing and security service, then the oversight mechanisms are slightly different. In terms of the wider policing organization, there's but 500 police stations across the state. And that's a state of five million people. So you can see from those figures, this is a very strong community focus in policing and therefore, by extension, security service throughout the country, that's strong community policing focus. And that's sort of demonstrated in some of the public attitude surveys. So for example, 83% of 18- to 24-year-olds are satisfied with policing in Ireland. Ninety-one percent of all respondents in a survey of seven-and-a-half thousand people trust An Garda Síochána. And then in terms of criminality and behavior, you know, in Ireland, there were 69 homicides in 2022. So that gives people internationally a sort of the context in terms of the criminality here. While I think the policing services worldwide may have taken somewhat of a battering in terms of public attitudes, in fact it went the other way for us during that time. So -- and when I say oh that is again because of security service and the Garda Síochána, we are the one agency. And then in terms of government structure, there is a single commissioner responsible for the whole organization and both components of the organization. There's two deputy commissioners, and a chief administrative officer. There's four regional assistant commissioners, so they take responsibility for geographical parts of the country. There's an assistant commissioner for serious and organized crime. There's one for community relations and roads policing. There's one in governance and accountability. And then there's me. And I am the head of the Garda National Crime Security and Intelligence Service, as I mentioned earlier on.

Andrew Hammond: Last but definitely not least.

Michael McElgunn: I would hope not, anyway. But we work together pretty collaboratively.

Andrew Hammond: And just before we go any further, just a couple of follow-up questions. So you mentioned the commissioner there, and I find the current commissioner just historically quite interesting. So for our listeners, his father was murdered by the IRA in 1989, I think it was. The current commissioner, Drew Harris, he was an RUC officer who went on to become the deputy head of the police service in Northern Ireland. So the Garda commissioners who came before him are a little bit different. And I'm sure that none of this is lost on people in the Garda Síochána and on you, so I just wondered if you could tell our listeners what's going on there. They may be like, oh that's kind of interesting. That's unusual.

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Well, you're quite right. Drew Harris is our commissioner, and he has been the commissioner for five years. So almost five years now. And his tenure has been extended by another two years. So he will do two further years with us. And you're quite right, he comes from Northern Ireland. His dad was blown up by an IRA bomb. And he has served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which then subsequently was assimilated into the police service in Northern Ireland after the various initiatives under the peace process in Northern Ireland. There had then I think, prior to his arrival down here, been a period of complaints and reviews, and some independent examinations of policing here. And I think at that point an open competition was run for the position of Garda commissioner. And the policing authority who assist the government in running that competition went internationally to look at at candidates for the posting. And I think there might have been a short list of three candidates. I think all of whom were actually international at that stage. And then the Commissioner Drew Harris was the successful candidate. So he comes from -- you know, the vast majority of people in the Republic of Ireland come from a nationalist, Catholic background, whereas the commissioner comes from a Protestant background in Northern Ireland. But while that might have been something of relevance at one time, less the case now, you know, in the modern era. He brings a lot of rich experience in policing and in fact, served for sometime in Police Scotland as well. So there's a huge experience in that international context.

Andrew Hammond: Yes, I just think it's an interesting story. And in terms of within Ireland, it's broken down into four regions. There's the Dublin Metropolitan Region, Eastern, Southern, and Northwestern. And then as you mentioned, there's a commissioner that oversees this. So I was just wondering as well, what's the onboarding process like for Garda officers? You know, is there like a standard training? Does everybody have to be a bobby on the beat? Does everybody have to join up, do the same training, spend some time on the street and then you can specialize in intelligence or counter-intelligence, or any of the other branches that you spoke about? Just help me understand how that works.

Michael McElgunn: Yes. In fact, we currently have a recruiting program ongoing for 1,000 officers. So it very much is as you have indicated, everybody joins at what we call Garda level. So that's constable or officer level. And they go through a training program which is a degree program, run over a couple of years. And that involves some modules where they are out in training stations, and then return to the central training college, which is in County Tipperary. And then after a period of time on front-line policing, individuals then become qualified to apply for positions in specialized roles. So we for example, in the Garda National Crime Security and Intelligence Service, we would recruit primarily from the wider policing organization. So we advertise internally, and then we look to select candidates. In addition, we take candidates at direct entrance into the security or particularly analysts or people with specialist language skills or et cetera. But we have a strong blend with heavy focus on people coming from the policing community focused background. And then people make their way through the ranks. So we all join at the same level and you work your way up through the ranks. In recent years, some of the senior positions, from chief superintendent, assistant commissioner, there has been -- the competitions have been open to members of the police service of Northern Ireland as well. And so we have some colleagues here who have spent their careers policing in Northern Ireland. But in each case, they also have had full careers in policing so they're not lateral entrance, if you like, into the positions. But at the senior leadership level of the organization, we do have what we call Garda staff, or senior civilian colleagues at executive director level in around HR, legal, our chief medical officer, and others. Director of communications and strategic transformation. So there's a blend at that level. The other thing I guess that's useful for an American audience in particular to be mindful of that, our officers are generally unarmed. So the officers on the street are unarmed, by and large. Detectives can carry firearms and we also have an armed support resource and capacity which actually is also under my remit and that's deployed nationwide. They are in a slightly different uniform to the regular officers. They drive different vehicles, and so they're indentifiable as armed officers, and they carry MP-7s and sidearms, and have other capacity around 40-mil launchers and tasers. So that blend. And then finally we also have a very specialist -- and I was going to mention them later -- our emergency response unit, which also is under my remit. So that's the top-tier intervention team, which is, you know, relatively small capacity by international standards. But that's also there for particular areas of concern and interventions where the risks are particularly high.

Andrew Hammond: And for the recruitment of the thousand officers, do you have to be an Irish national, or can people from Northern Ireland also join, or people from the UK? Or -- I think Erin was getting quite excited when you mentioned that there. Could Irish Americans join? Is it like the Irish football team? Or do you have to have been born there?

Michael McElgunn: Yes. No, we're quite open. In fact, our recent recruitment campaign has been altered slightly to allow people who are in Ireland on international protection, you know, those people who are here in this country as refugees, may apply and join An Garda Síochána. Now obviously vetting becomes a little more complicated, depending on the countries that people come from. And I think we have about 30 different nationalities represented in the organization. There is, of course, enhanced vetting requirements before you move into some of the specialist roles, including the roles under my remit. And sometimes so for people who come from countries where there may not be particularly stable governments, that vetting process can be challenging, and that can pose a difficulty.

Andrew Hammond: So just going on to yourself now, how did you end up overseeing all of these intelligence components? So you join up as a constable. I guess you've rotated around a few different things? Or was it more you found that you had an aptitude or a liking for the intelligence stuff, so you stayed in a particular stream. How does that work? How does one end up doing what you're doing compared to just doing more straightforward domestic crime and so forth?

Michael McElgunn: Yes. I've 32 years service in the organization now. And I've had roles on both the policing side and on the security service side of the coin. And just you know, have been fortunate enough to work in our criminal assets bureau, which is a bureau seizing assets from organized crime figures. I've worked in serious crime investigations over the years. And also at various police stations, almost all of them in Dublin. I haven't served outside of the Dublin metropolitan area to any great extent. And in fact, I was a chief superintendent, which is sort of the senior operation manager in Dublin City Center for about two years to the end of COVID, before I was promoted to assistant commissioner. So in and out, if you like. And generally speaking, the people in the security intelligence side hold detective appointments. And on promotion from a detective appointment, our general rule is you must go back for a while into front-line uniformed policing. And that's designed to sort of share experiences, but also to help people develop as they go along. So I had been involved in crime investigation and the criminal assets bureau when I was promoted to a sergeant back in the -- around 2004, I think. And I really was looking for a new path or something different. The security and intelligence department at that time tended to be exceptionally secretive. And it was pretty opaque in terms of how you applied or how you entered, or even what they did. And so when I was asked by a senior officer if I would have an interest in working in the area, I really had to ask, well what precisely is it that they do, and what would be required of me, and et cetera? How I might be a fit for it. And when I came in first, I led a team dealing with intelligence around Northern Ireland-related terrorism, and that was sort of my early -- and that at that time was sort of busy business area, because it was -- Good Friday Agreement had happened. But a number of fractious dissident groups that had broken away from the IRA were active. And it was certainly -- the focus was on those groups. So that was an interesting, dynamic time. And so to answer your question in a roundabout way I suppose, I found myself developing a level of interest and intrigue in what is a very different world than that of policing. It's closer in many respects to diplomacy. It is, you know, very analytical. It is slow-burning in terms particularly of hostile intelligence behavior. The Northern Ireland-related terrorist activity tended to be dynamic, faster-moving, and certainly was more exciting and closer to investigating organized crime. And then the counter -- the General International Counter-terrorist of you know, support activity, fundraising, assisting people in travel. You know, that wider procurement, slower-burning stuff. Money laundering. And that really put a lot of focus into collaboration with partner services, sharing of information, collective development, and looking at strategies around trying to prevent radicalization, et cetera.

Andrew Hammond: Help me understand as you look at the world now, what are the intelligence components of An Garda Síochána? Help our listeners understand the different things that are going on, counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, clandestine activity. Some of the other constituent parts you mentioned, the National Surveillance Units. So we don't need to go into that all at once, but just the top level, what are the intelligence components that are under your remit?

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Well, there's four divisions, essentially, operating under my sort of business area. We have the special detective unit, more commonly known as the Special Branch. And that operates under a detective chief superintendent. So they are, if you like, the law enforcement, the investigation side of national security. So they are the ones who do the interventions, the arrests, the detentions. Bring the matters before the court. And then they also have departments and dedicated the different -- investigations in the different threat areas. So you know, be that counter-terrorism or counter-intelligence, or terrorism specifically related to Northern Ireland are in that department. Then the Security and Intelligence Department, that's under again a second detective chief superintendent. So that essentially is the intelligence unit ring-fence started to secure department within headquarters facility. You know, that's recruitment. It's from the wider policing organization with some specialist support in terms of languages, technology, analytics, and that sort of thing. And that's the branch of An Garda Síochána then that partners with security services internationally. So that might be bilaterally or multilateral platforms at the European level. And then you know, externally, for example, the UK is outside of Europe now, but we've, you know, an exceptionally strong bilateral arrangement and engagements with the UK. And then also in the United States. So you know, MI5 in the UK; in the US, the FBI but also the Central Intelligence Agency, and other state agencies as well in the US, depending on what the particular intelligence channel might be. And that unit is also the home to our National Surveillance Units. So they take over that human and technical surveillance activity. And they're responsible then for that general intelligence cycle. That would be well-understood by people in the intelligence business. So you know, that tasking or targeting and gathering of information from CHIS technical surveillance or international partnerships. So that sharing, which is more and more important now in a globalized world. The third area, division, under my remit then, is our Special Tactics and Operation Command. Again, there's a detective chief superintendent in charge of that. And that is our specialist firearms intervention. It also has our national negotiator units. The emergency response unit, which is top-tier intervention team with all of those specialist intervention skills that you would expect, as was the case in the recent visit of President Biden. That is the team that would work closely with the Secret Service in terms of providing those high-level VIPs with protection while they're in the state. We also then have a liaison and protection division. That's under a detective chief superintendent as well. And that has sort of that tag, sort of, so that's the tactical assessment on security. So they're looking at security standards. Our major emergency management department, protective services international liaison is under that department as well. So that would include our Europol and Interpol national offices. So in summary, that's the various departments.

Andrew Hammond: Michael just mentioned Interpol. But what is it? If you're lucky, you may have heard of the famous red notices that they issue, or recall the term from some movie or newspaper that you watched in the past. Interpol was founded in 1923, and is celebrating is 100th anniversary. Interpol is short for International Criminal Police Organization. Essentially it facilitates international police cooperation and the exchange of information. For example, you have a precious work of art, a Rembrandt, that just so happens to be hanging above Grandma's ashes on the mantelpiece. But it gets stolen. The chances are pretty strong that it will end up in a different country. That's okay, because Interpol has a global stolen art database that law enforcement in your own country or any other country really, can access. In fact, almost every country in the world is a member of Interpol. On its centenary, Interpol helped take down an international art trafficking operation, which lead to over 60 arrests and the recovery of over 11,000 cultural objects. Some of the objects recovered were 77 ancient books in Italy that had been stolen from a monastery, over 3,000 ancient coins seized from an online sales platform by Polish police, and dozens of religious artifacts linked to a series of church robberies in Portugal. No less than 14 countries' law enforcement organizations were involved in this enterprise. [ SOUNDBITE OF LASER PRINTER SWOOSHING ] [ SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CLACKING ] And is there like a CIA, MI6 component to An Garda Síochána? So foreign intelligence-gathering, recruiting agents in overseas capitals and so forth?

Michael McElgunn: No, we are -- you know, in law, the policing and security service. And the security activities, or security services' activities are actually defined in legislation. And those are principally internal security in focus. So it clearly is the intention of government that we are an internally focused service. So you know, that focus is in and around protecting the state from, you know, acts of terrorism within the state, but also acts of espionage, sabotage behavior that would undermine the financial well-being of the state. So they are all principally internally focused. The national structure in terms of ultimately, as within any other country, national security rests with government. It is a government responsibility. And in Ireland, there is a department, recently established in relatively recent years, under the Taoiseach or prime minister's office. And that's the National Security Assessment Center. So the various actors of state, be that the military who have an intelligence component, the various partners of foreign affairs, National Cybersecurity Center, or ourselves in the Garda National Crime Security and Intelligence Service. We collaborate under the strategic direction of that office.

Andrew Hammond: So Ireland doesn't have a separate foreign intelligence-gathering agency?

Michael McElgunn: No, we don't. But the military do have an intelligence component, which will be more externally focused and particularly in and around areas where military people, or Irish interests, are deployed.

Andrew Hammond: What's the report structure like? So in the States, you have the CIA, you know, Central quote-unquote Intelligence. They centralize it. And then there's our presidential daily brief. Everyday, the president will get a brief on things that are happening around the country, around the world. Like how does the information get to the Taoiseach? Do you report to the commissioner, or is it someone within your team that goes everyday over to the Taoiseach, or you, or yes, just help me understand the flow of information.

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Well on the operational side essentially the commissioner has responsibility and so our reports are to him on operational activity. And then on strategic matters or operation matters that are going to be of concern, sort of nationally, there are briefings to the minister. And so those principally are done by the commissioner. I will accompany him to those meetings, or they're also done at a senior official level. So those designated senior officials within the Department of Justice with whom we engage on the very secure channels to give those briefings. So those are, you know, there's contact daily, I guess. But more formalized briefings tend to relate to any particular threat that might be emerging, or any particular matters of concern. So there are some that are set in the diary, if you like, but then there may well be more frequent if there's a particular matter of concern ongoing.

Andrew Hammond: You mentioned in the business area of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, that that takes up quite a, you know, a bit of -- a bit of time and a bit of resources. Can you just help our listeners understand that a little bit more? So does that mean that there's particular parts of An Garda Síochána that are around the border region or that are collaborating with PSNI to deal with the issues that are going on there? Help our listeners understand that just a little bit more, the parts of your branch that are focused on that relationship.

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Well, on the policing side, there is very strong cross-border connections and for some time before I came into this role as an assistant commissioner, I was responsible for that border area. And so there are engagements then with counterparts in the PSNI on the policing side at a strategic, operational, and tactical level. And these are happening sort of everyday at the operational level. And you know, there's joint initiatives around checkpoints so that they are done in partnership, and that there's an effective operational sharing of information, again on the policing side. And then on the intelligence side, the -- one of my business areas, that's security and intelligence here, engage with MI5. And they are sharing that information, that intelligence. Again that's daily meetings or very, very regular. That is a relationship that's got stronger and stronger in my time here. And you know, there's a lot of very good support there. So you can have intelligence material shared. You can have joint strategies around, you know, who we collectively believe might be individuals or groupings who pose a threat to that security environment, and to jointly sort of target those groups and those individual. So you know, there's a number of them. They're still active. So there's one grouping which uses the term Óglaigh na hÉireann, which is unhelpful, because that is actually the official title of the Irish Defense Forces. But it is used by one of these IRA groupings. There's another one then, the New IRA. Another called -- the so-called Real IRA. And then to a lesser extent, the Irish National Liberation Army, which was at one time a more significant player. And then some other smaller factions. So there's one, you know, called Arm na Poblacht which is another smaller grouping. All of those are groupings that are hostile to the Good Friday Agreement process. They all have their origins in a split, really, at the Ruling Army council house, the Provisional IRA at the time, of the strategy once that decision was made to go down that road. That led to a split of those groups and then emerged principally from splits within themselves in the years that have followed. And you know, in terms of examples, one of those groupings that are referred to, as far back as 2010, in the wintertime, I can recall it because it was quite a bit of snow in the border area. We had an intelligence intervention with our then that national unit, the emergency response unit, which stopped a car and made some arrests and seized an improvised mortar. And what was I guess most significant about this, it was very close proximity to the border. This mortar was of a new type that we hadn't seen before. And it used airbag canisters from a Volkswagen car, a sort of, if you like, the propulsion that would drive the warhead out of the mortar tube. And they -- so we knew we had a difficulty in that this was a new design that we hadn't seen before, and it clearly was in the context of a transfer from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, which suggested there was engineering capacity in the Republic of Ireland. And so -- and that, while an operation a success, was a worry. And a lot of very deep analysis, review of metadata, applying you know, very modern analytics, and then identifying a group of individuals and an intense period of surveillance that continued for the best part of, you know, sort of nine months after that event. And then there was a series of searches, principally in the south of Ireland, at the south part of the Republic of Ireland, if you know what I mean. Number of arrests made there. And during those searches and arrests, we discovered schematic design for this Mark -- what we titled a Mark 21 mortar. That whole network was disrupted in this series of arrests. There was one significant conviction associated with this.

Andrew Hammond: And you mentioned earlier the 100 or over 100 Garda officers had died in the century that the Garda has been around. And you mentioned that some of them were killed by the IRA. For our listeners, have Garda officers been targeted by, you know, loyalist terrorists, or Republican terrorists, or both? Or are the ones that have died, has it been like, kill the officers, but they were like, you know, quote-unquote collateral damage. They were not the intended target? Yes, just help us understand the officers who've fallen, how they intersect with, you know, Republican and loyalist terrorist groups.

Michael McElgunn: We haven't any experience of loyalist groupings targeting Garda officers. But then, they have not been operationally active in this jurisdiction, other than a couple of bombing incidents, and they were quite controversial. And they are well back in the years. So we haven't seen that behavior. The Provisional IRA was a, you know, disciplined organization, if you can use that term in respect of a terrorist outfit. And it operated to what they called the Green Book. And the Green Book principally prohibited them from engaging Gardaí or members of the Irish military as targets. Now there was a rationale behind that, of course, because the IRA in its early days and its inception when it emerged in 1969, was relying on public support in its behavior. And they were mindful, of course, that the Irish public had a good relationship with its police force. So they knew that the targeting of members of the Gardaí or the Irish Defense Forces was likely to be counter-productive in terms of their public support. And I think the same could be said too that they were keen to avoid mass casualty types of event. Because they knew that whatever support they might get from misguided individuals who might support the murder of a police officer or soldier in Northern Ireland, as abhorrent as all that might be to the rest of us, some individuals might support that. But if that were to become a mass attack, in which women and children and non-combatants were to be killed, they knew that that public support would evaporate, and evaporate fast. And ultimately that is the way things have played out for some of these dissident groupings as well, particularly in the light of the attack in Omagh in 1998. But so that doesn't mean the Provisional IRA didn't kill members of An Garda Síochána. They did. But it could have happened in the context of fundraising activities here. So they were robbing post offices and banks. And Gardaí responded to those incidents. In the context of kidnappings, where Gardaí were involved in searches to try and release individuals from their captors. And so indiscriminate firing in the general direction, and Gardaí and indeed members of the Defense Forces were killed in that context. Then the dissident groupings do not enjoy any particular level of structured, disciplined approach to their behavior, and tend to be -- have greater autonomy in how they conduct their business. That said, they are also less sophisticated in terms of their approach and strategies. That a lot of people with the experience from the Provisional IRA, be that engineering or in the operational field, they supported the peace approach. And many of those who went down the road of dissent or the so-called dissident Republican groupings were not in many cases those who had that background experience and then some -- they tended to be younger volunteers. There were some notable exceptions. There were some individuals who are quite experienced.

Andrew Hammond: I just want to talk a little bit more about foreign in the sense of -- from different islands, other than the British or the island of Ireland. So here in the States, we're always reading stories about Chinese industrial espionage, Russian, you know, intelligence officers active in Washington, DC. You know, obviously with the diplomats in any capital city, you have people who are really diplomats, and people who are posing as diplomats, but who are really intelligence officers trying to gather intelligence for their home country. So I just wondered if you could, like, just talk us through some of those things that you're dealing with. So domestic counter-espionage, counter-intelligence against foreign adversaries or -- let's not use the term adversaries. Just people that are trying to take information that the Irish government and Irish people don't want them to take. What's the threat landscape like for your branch, Michael?

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Well, look it, it's no surprise that we're not unique. We don't stand alone, that those, you know, malign threat actors exist in all countries. And you know, they exist here the same way that they do elsewhere. And as you've said, sometimes under diplomatic cover, but not always. And it's those who operate with that malign intent are the ones that naturally we are interested in. And you know, given the international nature of that threat, that is a very obvious area of collaboration with allied services and countries. In that, it really is a sort of shared risk and a shared threat. Then potentially, depending on where they're from, they have an interest in industry and you know, that espionage around industry, which is a concern. Because ultimately that is something that impacts on the financial well-being of a state. And that is something that must also be the focus of our business. And in many cases, it's subtle behavior. They seek to build up relationships at the diplomatic businesses, commercial, local government, or national government. And when those relationships are developed then to seek -- to influence, to gain access, and to continue from there. And then this whole area's very closely aligned to cybersecurity activities and threats that are again associated with malign governments. It's an interesting area, our business, in that it is of course so closely associated with diplomatic relations of a state. And therefore it's not always a comfortable area to speak about publicly. So I tend not to name the countries of concern, but it's an area of focus, it's an area of business, and it's a growing area of business. But in many respects, it is very different in that the threat posed plays out very differently in terms of time, in terms of scale, in terms of behavior. So you know, it's not as if we're looking at acts of violence in this jurisdiction or threats of violence. It's very different to that.

Andrew Hammond: When you started doing this, you know, joining as -- becoming a constable and moving over to this world, was there anything that was really surprising to you? Or were things as you kind of expected them to be, albeit just a little bit different in real life? Or was it like holy smoke, I didn't really realize all this stuff was going on underneath the hood?

Michael McElgunn: I think the latter, you know. And even when I came in here, I was a relatively experienced detective. And I had been for a number of years before I moved into this world. So I think I was probably surprised at, you know, some of the collection, methodologies that were available. You know, some of those international engagements to find yourself quite quickly sent abroad to meetings and, you know, to find yourself in sort of iconic buildings and think, you know, I really didn't think this place existed as such.

Andrew Hammond: Like a spy museum? [ Laughter ]

Michael McElgunn: Well, like the Spy Museum. And the -- you know, to find yourself at these places that I didn't think really existed outside of movies sometimes, but they very much did. And you know, to become part of the discussion and considerations around, you know, plotting for, you know, ultimately what were sort of -- monitoring the plotting into things that were quite outrageous. And you know, to think that most of the world goes by and doesn't know these things are happening, and are better off not knowing it. Because many of them are sort of false flags. They don't emerge as real threats. But other things certainly do. And you know, I think people should in general take comfort by the work that is done by intelligence services. And the exceptional collaboration that there is with these services to keep people safe. And that is not just at home. That's abroad. That you know, where we come into possession of a piece of intelligence that we feel will be of value elsewhere, we'll share that elsewhere, because ultimately we're mindful of the threat that elsewhere might be.

Andrew Hammond: To help you digest this episode, here's a 60-second snippet of some of An Garda Síochána's backstory. The Irish War of Independence began in 1919 and came to a conclusion with an Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921, which provided for the establishment of an Irish free state. This was quickly followed by the Irish Civil War, with pro- and anti-treaty sides fighting from 1922 to 1923. The Royal Irish Constabulary was the police force in Ireland up to this time, but it was disbanded and eventually replaced by An Garda Síochána. The Dublin Metropolitan Police, a separate entity which oversaw policing in the capital city, would likewise be incorporated into An Garda Síochána to constitute the force we see today. If you want to learn about a fascinating spy from this period, look into the life of Eamon Ned Broy. He served in the Dublin Metropolitan Police and ran secret files out to the director of intelligence for the IRA, Michael Collins. He would actually go on to become An Garda Síochána's commissioner from 1933 until 1938. [ SOUNDBITE OF LASER PRINTER SWOOSHING ] [ SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CLACKING ] I was just wondering, does the IRA diaspora ever figure into your operations, your investigations, and so forth, or not really?

Michael McElgunn: Well, traditionally they certainly did in the area of Northern Ireland-related behavior. And that could be seen, you know, regrettably on occasions in the United States, where part of the Irish diaspora who might have been involved in donations and fundraising may not have fully understood or appreciated, you know, the actual feeling on the ground in Ireland about some of the groupings that they sought to support. So you know, we were talking about groupings, for example with these very distant groups. They do not have between them all, a single elected representative, even in a local government. Even in a county council. So they have no political support. And they have no support from the public, and that was demonstrated in the huge numbers that voted in favor of the Good Friday Agreement in north and south of Ireland. So but that is pretty much disappearing now as an issue. It certainly was an issue during the PIRA campaign, continued for a time for some of these other so-called dissident groupings. But we certainly see less of it now. That's been the principle area that we have seen it in my time here.

Andrew Hammond: Do you find it gratifying? Are you enjoying the position?

Michael McElgunn: I am, and I always have. But I say to new entrants who come into this particular business area that you have to be a sort of internally motivated person. Because you will see the successes playing out, operationally so, when the Special Branch bring the case before the court, when the emergency response unit do the hard stop and make the arrests. Your role as an intelligence officer will never be identified. Your critical role in finding the little nugget that started this process going to that intervention, that media spotlight, so when everybody goes to the bar the night of that conviction or that big operationally success, you won't be invited. Because none of those people involved in that intervention even know what your role was in the operation. So that takes quite a different personality, a different way of viewing the world. So you have to be a person who can, you know, take your satisfaction from knowing yourself the importance role that you played in something that may well have become public, but your role in it certainly won't.

Andrew Hammond: Are there any stories that have came out that you're able to talk about that fall within the arena of your branch?

Michael McElgunn: There's one. It goes back to the time that Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Elizabeth, traveled to Ireland in 2011. There were some intelligence indications of efforts that might be made to disrupt that visit. Few of them played out. Two or three which we managed to disrupt. But one sort of blindsided us. And the evening before the Queen was due to arrive here in May 2011, there was a phone call to a police station in County Longford, in the middle of the country, which indicated that bombs had been placed on a bus that was going from the west of Ireland to Dublin at Sinn Féin's head office in Dublin at Busáras, which is Central Bus Station in Dublin. And as you would expect, that led to a series of searches, et cetera. And nothing was recovered at the physical locations, but the bus between Ballina, which is in County Mayo, and Dublin was stopped out on the outskirts of Dublin, a place called Maynooth. And during a search of the baggage area, an improvised explosive device was discovered on the bus. And this was a bus with a number of passengers on it, so our colleagues in the military assisted with an explosive ordinance team to disrupt the device. But subsequent analysis have indicated that it was a viable blast incendiary device. And so you can imagine if that had detonated the day before the Queen's visit, the implications that would have had. And of course, when that turned out to be sort of if you like a valid threat, a series of searches had to conduct and be read on throughout the night in terms of the wider security. So our department were deployed at that stage to do some work and try and work backwards and see what we could do. So needless to say the point of key interest was the phone call. And we discovered that it was made from a burner phone. But closer analysis of the SIM card did demonstrate that it had been used or associated with a phone in the United Kingdom previously. And we in real time dealt with our colleagues in the security services in the north who were working on trying to establish the ownership of that phone. But something else we discovered was a top-up on the SIM card. And we recovered the CCV of the location where that happened in the vicinity and identified an individual on that footage. And subsequently then also appeared that that individual was likely to be an associate with the Northern Ireland phone that historically had been associated with the SIM card. So that drew a personality to us of interest. And we decided to intensify surveillance around him to look at opportunities and on the night of the 20th of May, the Queen was present in Ireland, and there was a banquet, state banquet, at Dublin Castle, which was famous in that the Queen made some opening remarks in Irish. And that was something that was of international interest and of huge interest here in Ireland. But at around the time that happened, the target was under surveillance and made a further phone call to the same police station to indicate now there was a further bomb in Dublin Castle. But at this point in time, he was under active and live surveillance and was arrested by surveillance team. And in a follow-up search then, a firearm was recovered in his home. So he was a guy called Donald Billings, and he was subsequently convicted of possessions of explosives, making false report, and sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison before our special criminal court. You know, that's sort of a topical case at one moment in time. It became topical here in Ireland again recently because there was a documentary program about it.

Andrew Hammond: I was just wondering what does the future hold for you, Michael? Is this seen as a final position before you leave? Or is this seen as when Drew Harris leaves, you may throw your hat in the ring and maybe you'll come back on the show as the commissioner a few years? Or do you already have your slippers bought and your pipe looked out, and you're ready to [inaudible 00:53:26]. What does the future hold for you?

Michael McElgunn: Well, wait for this for a diplomatic answer, but I guess I'm just in this role since February despite a lot of history in this world in various departments. So this is the chance that sort of heading it up, if you like, I see some great opportunities for some development here of this area. So that's what I'd like to focus on. I can't serve on until I'm 60, so that gives me, you know, a number of more years.

Andrew Hammond: That's exciting. You've been on the job since February, so I'm guessing you're probably just now getting your head around all and you're ready to start making the changes you want to make.

Michael McElgunn: Yes. Exactly. Yes. And look, there's plenty there. I'm not in the world of changing things for the sake of it. Plenty works very well, but I think there are some changes that we can, with the various managers and the teams that work on them find better ways of doing things, too. And be open to new opportunities and new technologies and that's the exciting part of this world, too.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much. This has been really great. I really appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you. [ Music ] Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at SpyCast.spymuseum.org or on Twitter @INTLSpyCast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com /podcast/SpyCast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond. And my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrich. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincy, Memphis Vaughn the Third, Emily Colletta, Emily Renz, Afua Anokwa, Elliot Pelzman, Trey Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show's brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, The International Spy Museum. [ Music ]