The Four Square Laundry was a famous (or infamous) intelligence operation set up by the British Army in Western Belfast, Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. The British Army was just beginning to grasp how much of a disadvantage they were operating under - playing peacemaker between two factions who, after only a few months, were both out for their blood. The IRA was operating in large numbers in West Belfast, involved in ambushes, roadblocks, and most of all bombings. The British military and intelligence organizations had an enormously difficult time getting any information out of the population, as their accents alone were nearly always enough to give them away and few if any of the local population were interested in playing informer.

As a result, the British undertook a number of 'creative' undercover operations. One of these was the Four Square Laundry.

Undercover British from the MRF (Military Reconnaissance Force) opened a laundry service in Western Belfast, named Four Square. They hired local help, telling them nothing about the undercover operation, to run the service, and blanketed the neighborhood with 'grand opening' coupons offering deep discounts on laundry service.

The laundry's operations were used in a number of ways to gather intelligence. The most important part of the operation was the careful tracking of the numbered coupons - each was indexed to an address and, if necessary, a particular flat. Undercover intelligence operatives, working in the laundry (which was far easier than trying to blend in with active IRA sympathizers) carefully looked over incoming loads. Laundry loads from dwellings where no man was known to be living which contained men's clothing, for example, were marked down for further investigation. Excessive amounts of clothing were marked as possibly coming from barrack dwellings for IRA members.

The most audacious methods, however, involved technology and gadgets. The laundry was picked up and delivered using a high-roofed delivery van identical to those common in the area. The van, however, was modified with a false roof inside. Lying between this false roof and the real roof, two British intelligence agents were able to use cameras to photograph passersby from out concealed spyholes. Thus, street surveillance for known suspects became possible.

Within the laundry itself, an even more sneaky trick was used. In the basement, among the various commercial washers and dryers, was a special machine which every load went through at some point. Although the employees thought it was just another commercial laundry appliance, inside it was a type of 'sniffer' that could identify traces of particular compounds. Notably, it could detect explosive residues and the cordite used in military ammunition. Whenever a load tripped those sensors, the British knew that someone from the address on the coupon had been exposed to these substances. If necessary, additional coupons would be distributed to double check or narrow down the findings.

While this was a clever setup, it was eventually unmasked by classic counterintelligence on the part of the IRA. A volunteer who had been working with the English on other operations was interrogated by the IRA, and he admitted to his deception and named another irishman who he knew was also working with the MRF. That man, named McKee, was employed by the Four Square Laundry. He was snatched and interrogated, and from his information the IRA realized that the Laundry was suspect.

At the time, claims Moloney, the Brigade Commander for the West Belfast area was Gerry Adams, later leader of the Sinn Fein. He ordered a retaliatory operation, and on October 2, 1972 the Laundry van (with two British undercover agents driving it at the time) was ambushed in a hail of gunfire. One agent, a male, was killed; the other, a woman, ran into a nearby home and claimed that Loyalist gunmen were trying to kill her. The occupants, staunch supporters of the IRA, offered her shelter, a sedative and drinks until a plainclothes policeman could come to collect her. Although the attackers specifically directed gunfire at the roof of the van, the British Army makes no mention of any casualties besides the driver. Either they do not wish to admit to them, or the van was not carrying observers at the time.

It's not clear how much useful intelligence the Four Square Laundry operation collected. After the attack, it was mostly an embarrassment to the British Army as it demonstrated that their efforts were being scotched by the IRA. Gerry Adams developed a reputation for ruthlessness and brutality based partly on the ambush of the laundry van, his first major operation in the area. Some historians and analysts are harsh in their judgement. Ed Moloney, in his book The Secret History of the IRA, notes that

By the standards of later British intelligence operations against the IRA, it was an amateurish operation but also an indication of how little the British knew about the IRA in those early days.1

An unidentified Lt. Col. in the British Army, interviewed for a broadcast on the BBC, agreed, saying

It was an attempt which partly worked and partly failed with disastrous consequences which we all know. But I suspect, in the way of these things, is rather like the sort know, the first parachute, somebody's got to have the notion of a parachute, jump out of an aeroplane and be killed before somebody says well I think we've got to design a better parachute.2

Was the Four Square laundry too ambitious, or amateur? Hindsight can tell us it is in relation to later efforts on both sides later in the war, but as both Moloney and the Lt. Col. agree, it was undertaken early on and served as a 'wakeup call' for both sides. Tom Ricks, writing for the Washington Post, manages to miss the disastrous ending of the operation (he goes so far as to say "During the entire operation, no one was injured or killed" which might be true if you consider the ambush to have happened after the end of it). However, he offers an Israeli maxim on this type of work:

The Israelis have a term for this [out of the box] type of thinking, "Embracing the Meshugganah," which literally translated means, embrace the craziness, because the crazier the plan, the less likely the adversary will have thought about it, and thus, not have implemented a countermeasure.3

It is quite true that the IRA did not have operational countermeasures for the Four Square Laundry. The operation was not hampered by day-to-day IRA operating procedure, and it was only discovered due to a break in another intelligence operation. The design of the operation was quite bold and the operating concept seems to have worked well - where it fell down was on tradecraft, that of compartmentalization and the everyday security of the general MRF informer-running process. In other words, smart in design but poor in execution.

1 A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney. New York: W.W. Norton Books, 2003. pp. 119-120.
2 "Brits: Britain's Secret War" by Peter Taylor. Broadcast on BBC, May 2000.
3 "Tom Ricks's Inbox", by Tom Ricks. Washington Post, Oct. 5, 2008 p. B02.