By Susan Falvella Garraty and Jack Holland
WASHINGTON, D.C. — State Department officials who previously reacted with circumspection to a controversial House International Relations Committee report on allegations about IRA links to the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) have now publicly said that they believe IRA training of FARC has made a deadly difference to that group’s capacity to kill. The report alleging those links came out after a hearing on the allegations in Washington on April 24.
“There obviously are links,” between the IRA and the FARC,” said the Bush administration’s special adviser on Northern Ireland, Ambassador Richard Haass, from his office at the State Department on Tuesday.
Colombian forensic evidence is reported to show that the three IRA-linked Irishmen arrested in Colombia last August had been in contact with generic explosives, traces of which were found extensively on their clothes and personal belongings.
The three, Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley, and James Monaghan, have maintained that they were in Colombia in order to study the now defunct peace process, which failed in February after the Bogota government broke off talks with FARC. They have since been charged with assisting FARC and are facing trial this summer.
More recently, the State Department is thought to be seriously concerned about photographic evidence that Padraig Wilson, a high-ranking member of the IRA and a confidant of Gerry Adams, was part of the IRA team in Colombia. He is one of some 15 IRA members who the Colombians say visited a large area controlled by FARC until recently. Wilson is believed to have visited Colombia in April 2001 in the company of a well-known Irish journalist whose newspaper has been critical or dismissive of allegations that the three Irishmen were in Colombia were on an IRA mission to help FARC. He and his newspaper regularly suggested that such reports were part of an effort by members of various intelligence organizations to undermine Sinn Fein.
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Accusations that Wilson was involved could damage Adams’s standing in the U.S. Adams has vociferously denied that the republican movement had any knowledge of the visits.
It may have taken a close call with some of their own for U.S. State Department officials to adopt a less cautious approach to reports that the IRA gave the FARC rebels explosives training that increased the lethal power of their bombing and mortar technology. On April 26, two days after HIRC’s hearing on the allegations, a car bomb was deactivated outside the United States’ Aid for International Development office in Bogota, Colombia. USAID is run by the State Department.
A letter from undersecretary of state for management, Grant Green, to House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde a few days later indicated the new intentions of State Department officials to reprogram almost $4 million to relocate USAID personnel to a more secure site in Bogota.
“This is the first price tag the U.S. has to pay for FARC’s enhanced capacities,” an official said.
“We’re obviously looking at what this means and continue to investigate,” he said — knowledgeable that American lives had been jeopardized because of alleged IRA training.
Haass confirmed that weapons experts and U.S. intelligence have advised him that the FARC’s recent round of bombings bears “patterns or hallmarks of IRA operations.”
“I expect to find out more after my trip,” he said.
Haass is scheduled to go to Ireland early in June.
U.S. congressional officials said this week that classified intelligence cables “finally made it to the right desks at the State Department.”
Last month, the HIRC majority Republican staff issued a report that claimed the FARC and the IRA have trained and worked together since at least 1998. However, at the time senior State Department officials were cautious in their response. Many House members and senators lambasted the report and played down the quality of evidence tying the IRA to Colombian terrorism. That was before USAID became a potential terrorist target in Colombia.
The Irish journalist who allegedly accompanied Wilson was questioned in connection with the attempted assassination of a British businessman in Dublin about 15 years ago. His newspaper recently alleged that HIRC chairman Hyde had accepted campaign donations from defense contractors, hinting that his advocacy of giving U.S. aid to the Colombian government in its war against terrorist was linked to his relationship to the contractors.
Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McAuley, on the campaign road for Sinn Fein, said his party was not concerned by Haass’s public comments.
Haass agreed with senior congressional staff that the trial will be watched closely by U.S. officials. Survival of Sinn Fein’s productive fund-raising ability in the U.S. would be in question if further concrete proof of IRA training surfaces.
“The real fear, and Lord knows we pray this never happens, but the first time a U.S. citizen is the victim of these new FARC bombings — then the gloves will come off,” said the senior congressional staff member. “They won’t be allowed to raise a nickel and they’d be lucky if that’s all that happens to them.”